Cultivating Culture, Cultivating Leadership

Castle Vale Festival 2013

On Tuesday 18th March I gave a presentation on a pilot I have been leading on for Birmingham City Council at an event titled Cultivating Culture. Before I get into the event and the presentation I want to say something about why this blog might be an interesting read to you.

My primary work and voluntary roles are focused on the area of leadership: providing leadership and helping to develop leadership in others. My presentation is about the pilot programme, however at it’s core are my leadership principles

  • the role of the central leader
  • the leadership team
  • the vision
  • the quality input
  • how resources are used
  • courage and risk taking

This might look like it’s out of a text book or similar to things you’ve seen before but I ask you to read a bit more.

For instance if you saw a list of ingredients for a recipe Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver or Michel Roux is making. You wouldn’t think ‘that’s a bit text book’, ‘I know all about that dish’ or ‘it’s similar to what I’ve seen before and anyway that’s how I do it’. I hope you’d want to know what makes it different and how they do it. Plus you have to agree that knowing the ingredients, knowing the method and being quite good at cooking doesn’t make you a Michelin Star Chef. If it was as easy as that every kitchen in the country would have the highest quality food experiences. Plus these top chefs never stop striving for more or developing their craft and sometimes working in different places to see how they can use their skills elsewhere. I’m not claiming to be a Michelin Star chef, my point is that there is always value at looking at what other people are doing.

So my list of leadership principles came out of my head; from trying things out; seeing other people in action; working with some of the best people; going ahead and doing it, not always having the best experience, but always learning and striving for more.

I also work across different sectors and I have learned a thing or two about what is used in education, the arts, regeneration, and health that provides some cross-fertilisation in leadership approaches and thinking. Therefore no matter what sector or job you are in, I’d be surprised if you couldn’t take something from this, or add to the thinking.

From January 2013 I have been the Cultural Pilot Coordinator in Castle Vale, Birmingham. Three of us were independently contracted to deliver a pilot project in three different areas of the city: the other areas are Balsall Heath and Shard End. The cultural pilots came from the idea of running parallel to a national pilot (the three Birmingham areas plus seven locations nationally) all looking at Community Based Budgeting. That is to say, what happens if the choices about money for services are made by people in their community rather than by the officers in the local authorities.

The event on the 18th March, ‘Cultivating Culture’, brought together 200 people from across the arts sector and other interested people, for an afternoon looking at arts provision in Birmingham’s communities with three areas of focus: Cultural Pilots; Arts Champions; Local Arts Forums. All three initiatives led by Birmingham City Council’s Cultural Commissioning Team.

I have been a part of Castle Vale for over 15 years. I first went to work there to recruit young people for a project as part of my role working for the Arts Team at Birmingham City Council. Soon after that through my position at artSites Birmingham, where I delivered an arts programme working with local partners, and then in 2008 I was asked to become a trustee of the new local arts charity Active Arts Castle Vale, the succession group for local arts programming at the end of artSites. I know this estate, the people and it’s history well.

I won’t go into the detail of the cultural programme but it’s worth knowing that it started with a 3 month consultation and research phase resulting in a report with recommendations for next steps and how to use the £20,000 budget. From this the funds were divided into two amounts. The majority for the Castle Vale Festival, a large event that took place in September 2013 and a smaller amount for a Social Prescription project, working with the three local GP’s and other health partners to prescribe arts activity on prescription. This second project started January 2014 and was due to come to an end at the end of March but has been extended with additional local funds to June 2014.

To see my presentation follow the link below. (If you’re new to prezi top tips are: have your volume up; make full screen; use the arrow keys or swipe if on a tablet to move the presentation along at your own speed.) There is music with this presentation and I hope you can find a natural rhythm of reading and making your way through the presentation in time to it – it will only take 2-3 minutes to do. Once you’ve done this come back for how I followed the visuals.


There wasn’t time in the presentation to share everything, so I highlighted my key messages from delivering the pilot, focusing on the Castle Vale Festival. This is what I had to say in my very concise to the point presentation style approach:

Firstly it’s about the central person making things happen – me

It’s about the team I’m part of – the residents and partners who are my co-producers. Collaborating. Drawing on skills, expertise and passion

The quality of artists – provide the best to get the best

Not dividing your resources into lots of little projects – it’s about one big idea with smaller parts

Finally have courage – believe in the people you involve and in the structure created

From following my principles something amazing happened involving the whole estate.

Could it have happened anyway? – Yes, in part, but with fewer resources there would have been less impact.

So what next? We’re now building on this further. It started with the symbolic image of handing over the key of responsibility from the older generation to the younger generation. We now have young people, adults and older people leading together.

A legacy has been created and it is being built on.

The challenge now – positive impacts don’t come for free. You need to put something in to get something out.

At this point in the presentation I handed over to Tracey Barrington to give her point of view from experiencing the project as she is a resident, works for one of the partners on the estate and was one of the cultural producers working with me on the delivery.

Birmingham City Council’s Cultural Commissioning Team are keen to find ways to have the most impact with very little resources from them – the financial mess of the local authority and country’s finances are well known.

It’s not been a project without challenge, mostly managing expectations and well meaning interference in delivery by those in Birmingham City Council. Pressure was on us as coordinators to do things in a certain way, to convince businesses to take on the financial burden of local arts provision as council budgets become smaller and smaller, and there were disagreements as how to deliver at times. At one point when I was told that spending most of the money on one big event was not the way forward I sent one of my polite but clear emails pointing out the project was titled Community Based Budgeting and not Local Authority Based Budgeting. That they needed to trust the structure of the pilot and if something failed they needed to allow that to happen. Ultimately they needed to have faith that the community and I knew what we were doing to make the project a success and to meet expected impacts and ambitions.

My leadership approach is about supporting people to be successful – not to fail. In education they refer to ‘scaffolding the learning’ providing the key pillars of structure and knowledge to allow students to learn through discovery and action, with the teacher as guide and expert. This is how I am working in Castle Vale. I am the expert with the wealth of knowledge and experience. The people I’m working with  all bring their experiences and skills and enthusiasm. By giving them the right support, guidance and permissions, they are helping to make things happen and the learning takes place so that they can repeat and build on that as much as they want to.

To go back to the areas I identified at the beginning of the blog, leadership is about: the role of the central leader; the leadership team; the vision; the quality input; how resources are used; courage and risk taking. Through the pilot I have been central to the success but only because I also built around me a solid leadership team, with a shared ambitious vision, that drew on excellent people to guide and support – with the resources to do what was needed, of the quality it should be –  sticking to our central principles and drawing on our courage to take the risks needed. From one leader, many emerged and from strong leadership principles, leadership is cultivated and sustained.

The commissioners wanted to see sustainability beyond the project, they thought that this was about training, setting up committees and a wealthy business to finance it all. Sustainability is about creating the right eco-system for continuing existence. In Castle Vale the people have grown through this experience and will continue to grow with the right balance of input but it does take some kind of input. You can’t get something out without putting something in but that’s an entirely different blog article.


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