Things to pass on – thing three

July 13th 2018 Grand Hall re-opening

I am writing a few blogs to share some of my learning as artistic director. Thing one is here and thing two is here.

I said I’d write a blog about things that have gone wrong.

I’ve only got a few days left as artistic director – and I haven’t done it yet. [Another learning point – don’t promise things you might not have time for!]

So with the clock ticking I’ll just pick a couple of proper clangers. It’s probably for the best, this blog could otherwise have become a sad litany of personal disasters – I’ll just focus on some of the bigger challenges…

Getting the programme model wrong

Back in 2005 – and then again in 2010 – we had ideas to change the programme model. Looking back, these were high-concept, top-down approaches!

In 2005 we decided to focus BAC’s work on supporting the development of producers.

In 2010 we focused on BAC’s role as a development theatre by only supporting new work by artists through scratch.

Both models were an attempt to focus on what we were funded to do.

In some ways both ideas were simply trying to admit that we did not have enough money to run an 80 room arts building – and therefore publicly state a more manageable focus.

Both ideas turned out to be disastrous.

The 2005 model didn’t get too far.

I can still remember the horror on several staff member’s faces – who were not producers – when we told them we were going to focus the organisation’s energies on the role of individual producers.

How to divide a staff team.

Fortunately we killed off the idea before it took hold. I’d hate to think how it would have gone down with artists. Or indeed audiences. ‘Yes, that’s right, the venue now exists exclusively to support producers.’ Hmm.

The 2010 idea did get off the ground.

We changed the budgets and our approach to programming. We only had artists in residence who were focussing on the development of new work through scratch.

We planned three moments each year when we would share the best of this work – and anything that did not fit in to these public moments was welcome to find an alternative home.  

We had no visiting or touring work in the building – we became a pure development house.

Within 6 months we were in financial difficulties. Footfall to the building had crashed. The creative ferment of the organisation suffered because there were less great ideas touring in to the building from outside London. And we were losing contact with our community.

Conceptually I think the idea came from a good place – and other organisations have brilliantly made versions of this kind of idea work.

But it didn’t fit well with having a massive public building. Most importantly it didn’t remember that a crucial thing we do – that we have been doing for 120 years – is to provide a home for our community.

What both these ideas have in common – is the way that they were implemented in Battersea – they were “top down” and they both came from an ideological place.

Over the years, I have learned that the best changes to our organisation have evolved democratically. They have usually been much more pragmatic – and are almost always based on people’s lived experience.

The Grand Hall fire

In 2015 our capital redevelopment of the building was nearly complete. We were enjoying some of our biggest audiences with work across the whole of the building all year round. We had launched programmes like The Agency which were helping us to think differently about our whole purpose as an arts organisation. Things felt good.

And then the fire happened.

This was the biggest challenge I dealt with in all my time in Battersea.

It was made much easier because of the incredible support we received for which we will be ever grateful – and relieved.

The thing I want to focus on here is dealing with a major incident like that – dealing with something massive that goes wrong.

Since 2015 I have been invited to engage with disaster planning conferences. This is because our response to the fire was perceived to be well managed by the people who organise disaster planning conferences.

Did you even know that disaster planning conferences existed? I didn’t.

People requested to review our Disaster Recovery Plan – the plan which had seen us through the aftermath of the fire – step by step.

Of course the reality was that we did not have a plan. I felt bad talking to disaster planning people and telling them that we didn’t have a plan. Worse still saying it out loud at disaster planning conferences. It didn’t feel respectful of what I began to realise was a whole industry of disaster planners. But it was true.

We didn’t have a document or a plan that told us what to do. But what I think we did have by 2015 was a team culture which used scratch to tackle all sorts of day-to-day challenges.

A brilliant Executive Director called Sarah Preece had encouraged us to test out a new model of project working – this was back in 2010/11. It was an organisational framework which placed scratch at the heart of everything we do.

By 2015 we were quite good at flexibly creating new projects and approaches to respond to new ideas or new challenges.

When the fire happened, we set up a “Phoenix Project team” with people from across the organisation. It sat alongside all the other project teams.

Just like with any other project, we sought to be as open as we possibly could about everything we knew at each moment of a quickly evolving situation. We also sought to be honest about the things that we didn’t know and that we were still working on.

If disaster planning people thought our response to the fire was successful, it was because we adopted a scratch approach. Just like we do with everything else.  

Dealing with things that go wrong is at the heart of the scratch process – and when it came to the aftermath of the fire – loads and loads of things kept going wrong.

Using our scratch process proved to be a really useful way of inviting everyone to be involved in the process and publically evaluating everything as we went along.

Of course, the biggest reason why we were able to respond to the disaster in the way that we did was because of the incredible support of everyone – from thousands of members of the public – to our design team and contractors – to our insurers and loss adjusters – to politicians and our local community – to journalists to artists – everyone responded in the most incredible way.

Without their support – the outcome would have been very different.

And maybe the scratch process made it a little easier for people to engage. Because rather than behave in a corporate manner and pretend we knew what we were doing – we treated each hour and each day as part of a creative process to get back on our feet.

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