Why the future's all about creation

Leading the Arts Council in a region where culture is now so high profile is no mean job.

Mark Robinson, Executive Director, Arts Council England, North East

Leading the Arts Council in a region where culture is now so high profile is no mean job. Graeme King talked to executive director Mark Robinson about art, prisons policy, vegetarian cookery and Preston North End.

It must be one of the most sought after jobs around. You are running an organisation with a serious budget, and with some major clout, but it's all about art - which many of us only get to indulge in out of the office.

Mark Robinson seems to recognise his good fortune in getting to perform such a role, but also speaks of it in terms of the level of responsibility - and his organisation's ability to act as a force for good in the world.

For the 42-year-old seems very well grounded, with a keen grasp of the need to make society better, at the same time as creating beauty and wonder.

This down-to-earth approach may stem from Mark's rather broad outlook on life. While he enjoys what is shown at Baltic, and the music coming out of The Sage, an hour's conversation with him establishes that his life has been made up of a patchwork of experiences - not simply moving up the career ladder to his now heady position.

He has been head of Arts Council North East for a little over a year now, running the organisation while Andrew Dixon takes a two-year secondment with marketing agency NGI.

He started off in life in Lancashire - a village near Preston, and describes himself as "one of the last of the old fashioned grammar school boys." While he still has an attachment to Preston, and its football team, he has now been in the North-East for around 15 years. He lives in Eaglescliffe near Stockton, with wife Alison and children Louis, 16, and Billie, 14.

Mark has not always been in arts admin - he started out in his professional life as a chef in a vegetarian restaurant in York.

He says: "It's rather like performance - which is what I really liked about it. There's the preparation, `the show' and then the wind down afterwards. There is also the disappointment if you have it all ready - and nobody comes." At that time Mark was involved in arts on a voluntary basis. He is a writer by background, and a poet of some repute with several books to his name.

He says: "I was writing, doing writing work in the community, running a literature festival - these days you would call it a portfolio career."

One intriguing aspect of Mark's work at this time was as a writer in residence in a prison at Wealstun near Wetherby in West Yorkshire. He says: "It was half an open prison, and half a low security - but closed - prison. It was fascinating. Everybody had a story to tell, whether they had done terrible things, or relatively minor things, but done them lots of times.

"Prisons are difficult places to work - very intensive environments. I have also done lots of work in schools, and in adult education - in secondary schools you could see the paths certain people would go on.

"And that's a real challenge - we have got to give young people the opportunities to live rich and fulfilling lives. That's the kind of thing I'm still doing now. The more we do that, the better our communities will be.

"The thing I saw in person in prison, is that if you treat people as if they are useless, as someone who needs locking away, they will come out more angry than when they went in - and more likely to do bad stuff than if you treat them with dignity and give them opportunities to grow.

"On a very practical basis, I have never seen any evidence that a `hang em and flog em' policy works."

Mark has been in `big' arts administration for a decade now, having become director of Cleveland Arts in 1997. He explains, in a slightly comical, but `been there, done that' way, that he has always had a certain confidence in his own abilities.

He says: "All the way through my life, I've had a feeling of `I could do that job' and that if I don't, some other muppet who won't be as good, will do it.

"For the Cleveland job, I put an application in, and persuaded them that I was the right person. It was cooking that gave me a lot of management skills - to run a kitchen is management under pressure.

"But if you had told me back then I would have been chief executive of Arts Council North East, I would have thought you were mad. My trajectory shows I've always wanted to be in a position to influence things. To have my voice heard, to be in the mix - sometimes you win the debates, sometimes you don't. It's better to be in there trying than outside.

"I always felt I could combine an organised point of view with an artist's point of view. And it's always been about the arts in a social, political, cultural context. It's never been about putting it in a separate corner, separate from politics, etc."

This is a major theme for Mark, and he has some nice lines to justify his stance too.

He says: "I think we need art in our lives as individuals and as groups - communities would be impoverished without it. Take all the art and design out of your house and see what it feels like to live there.

"Where we in the Arts Council come in, is that you need a diversity of arts in society. You could probably leave some bits of art to the market, but it would become very narrow, and very bland very quickly.

"Things change as things come in from the margins. What seemed weird and outrageous at one point becomes the mainstream five, 10, maybe more years later."

He talks of his work, and that of his colleagues, in an enthusiastic and evangelistic manner.

"It's about helping people to engage with things. When people say a Baltic show was a load of rubbish, I say you should not expect to like every single thing in there - same as you would not like all the music on Radio One and Radio Three," he says.

"It's all part of our identity - what you don't like as much as what you do like. It's about engaging with something critically.

"Art is one of the main areas where we exercise our creative muscles - and if you don't use those muscles they will get weak.

"If young people are never engaged with creatively, they will not be creative themselves. And if they are not, we won't survive economically and culturally in the world.

"Our future is about creativity and ideas and the knowledge economy more than about the things we have had in the past in this region.

"The global economy is increasingly not about manufacturing and mining, but about the transfer of ideas and the value you can make out of that."

One Arts Council project he is particularly proud of is the creative partnerships which the organisation is helping to foster with schools.

He says: "Things like creative partnerships in schools, that is less about having artists in schools, and more about having artists working with young people - it makes them more creative and better citizens.

"And in simple educational terms, it improves attainment. Young people who have engaged with the programme have done better than those who did not."

This links into arts in wider society - and how the North-East has enthusiastically embraced the arts as a means to transform the fabric of society.

Mark says: "Our regional image work is a really important part of how the region has positioned itself in the UK and global markets.

"We are now seen as a creative place that does stuff and is changing and is not stuck in the past. That is a good thing whether you like going to Baltic on a Sunday afternoon or not. It's about what fits for you as a person.

"It's about the stuff people don't necessarily know about unless they come into contact with it. The Sage is an example - people think of the building, but it's the tip of the iceberg as an organisation.

"It has something like 1.4 million educational contacts in a year right across the region, so young people engage with music and music making in some way, and they also work with older people too, like with the Silver Singers choir.

"Sage did a study of its educational impact in its first year and found the economic value was £43m - £11 for every £1 they got from us."

But while he enthuses about the result of Arts Council spending, he also stresses how much soul searching goes into awarding grants.

"It's a very serious thing to do, to give people that amount of money, but we do get a really excellent return on it - and that's where the arts funding system has evolved over the years. We've become a lot more rigorous about public benefit and really making sure our arts organisations play a full role in their communities."

To ensure arts funding is delivering, the Arts Council is currently engaged in a public consultation exercise, to see what society makes of its work.

This `Arts Debate' seems to be a pretty exhaustive process of asking all groups in society what they make of arts output - whether they like it or not, or as the current jargon has it, talking to `hard to reach' people as well as those with lots to say.

Mark says: "One reason why we are doing the arts debate, is to find what value members of the public get out of the arts, and so how do we refine how we do things?

"We have to make choices about what we fund. There's always something else you can spend your money on, so we need to be delivering value.

"We have facilitated discussions to cover the whole demographic range - people of all ages, classes and geographical spread.

"We also talk to local authorities, to the RDA - with the idea of getting as much input as we can, then over the summer, sit down and look at all the messages we have heard.

"Even if you are a conviction politician, it does you no harm to listen. We will stick by our convictions, but our convictions will be enriched by this conversation."

The actual amount of funding available is always a cause for debate. Mark can see both sides of the issue - but is clear that the arts deliver extremely good value for money.

He says: "We have experienced significant growth in arts funding in recent years - it's pretty much doubled since 1997.

"There is a school of thought that says the increase is just building back up from the cuts of previous years, but it has paid dividends for the arts in this country.

"Audiences have been increasing, people have been able to fulfil ambitions artistically and reached out to audiences.

"What we say is that the arts have delivered with the money they have got. And the amounts are relatively small in government expenditure terms.

"There is ample evidence our money is well spent and will be in the future, and no reason to believe the Government does not understand that. And investment has had real results. Why would you risk that?"

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The questionnaire

What car do you drive?
Skoda Fabia

What's your favourite restaurant?
The Waiting Room in Eaglescliffe - a great vegetarian restaurant, often with bands in the backroom.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Dr Alan Statham in Green Wing

What's your favourite book?
Simply impossible to say. The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch perhaps. Or Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus.

What's your favourite film?
Billy Liar, directed by John Schlesinger.

What was the last album you bought?
`The Way the Wind Blows' by A Hawk and a Hacksaw (Americana meets Balkan gypsy brass) and CD86, a compilation featuring lots of things I have on seven-inch vinyl from the heyday of jangly guitar punk. Both from the excellent RPM on High Bridge Street on my lunchtime stroll.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?
Travel writer.

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?
'We're the one and only North End' (chant of Preston North End football fans)

What's your greatest fear?
Apart from all the usual stuff to do with my family, it's currently that Preston North End will get beaten by Sunderland in the play-off final later this year, if we both get that far. (The result would be bad, but it's more the stick I'd get in the office I'm afraid of!)

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Worst business advice?
Making soup out of yesterday's salad will improve your gross profit.

What's your poison?
Vodka from the freezer.

What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
The Guardian.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Can't remember how much it was, but I got it for working in the carpet warehouse where my dad worked one summer holiday. It was also for buying records with - Pere Ubu and Dexy's Midnight Runners albums the first week.

How do you keep fit?
Five-a-side, the gym and playing the guitar.

What's your most irritating habit?
It used to be indecision. I can't make up my mind what it is now.

What's your biggest extravagance?
CDs and books.
I find it almost physically impossible to walk past a second-hand bookshop or an interesting looking record shop.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
Given I keep all those books and records in alphabetical order, it would have to be Rob from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity!

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Groucho Marx, Nelson Mandela, Joe Strummer and Aretha Franklin.

How would you like to be remembered?
Being remembered at all will do.

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The CV

1987 BA (Hons) 2:1 English Literature and French, University of Liverpool
1998 Common Purpose graduate
2006 Fellow, Royal Society for the Arts

Employment

2005-present Executive Director, Arts Council England, North East
2002-2005 Director, Arts and Development, Arts Council England, North East
2000-2002 Head of Film, Media and Literature, Northern Arts
1999-2000 Programme Director for Arts & Humanities, Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Durham
1997-1999 Director, Cleveland Arts
1996 HMP Wealstun Writer-in-Residence
1993-1997 Literature Development Worker, Cleveland Arts
1993-2000 Freelance writer and artist

Books

1994 The Horse Burning Park
1997 Gaps Between Hills
1998 Half A Mind
2002 Words Out Loud

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer