Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, 10 January 2016

We don’t always get things right. How can we talk openly about failures and

fuck-ups without undermining the case for arts funding?

Our inability to deal with failure runs through education and wider societal systems.

We don’t admit failures so it’s impossible to learn from them. - Need for a sympathetic

culture that doesn’t condemn failures.

We talk about failure as a learning tool through evaluation forms etc… Perhaps this is

just a polite and sanitised way of doing it.

What happens when it’s not your personal failure to own? When acknowledging the

failure would be seen as a gross indiscretion or disloyalty to an organisation?

Mathew Syed’s 'Blackbox Thinking’ examines the role that failure has played in

creating the high levels of safety in the aviation industry - because companies have to

acknowledge their failings and thus learn from them. Focus on failure as a tool for


The difference between the arts industry and aviation industry is that the stakes of not

reporting failure are not as high - people don’t usually die. Although there can be really

dangerous consequences of incompetence and malpractice even in the arts industry

(participants offered examples redacted here for confidentiality).

The problem of BLAME. No one wants to be blamed and singled out for responsibility

because they could lose their jobs - and so they avoid admitting faults, fail to learn

from them and then probably repeat them.

A differentiation between practical, financial and measurable failures and more

transient intangible artistic failures.

If you know something unprofessional or dishonest is happening, are there any outlets

to draw attention to that without being labelled unprofessional or indiscreet?

There is no protection for whistleblowers in our industry.

Where do we locate responsibility for artistic success or failure? With which of the


Participants gave examples of their own experiences in ‘rose tinting’ evaluation forms

(redacted here for confidentiality).

What don’t we include in evaluations that are integral to the success/failure of the

project? e.g., practitioners reporting incredibly successful projects having world

significantly more hours than they are paid for and damaging their health.

How do we include welfare and wellbeing as an evaluation criteria?

Cuts to ACE have dramatically reduced staff numbers that has had a knock on effect

to the holistic evaluation that used to happen face to face with relationship managers.

Perhaps admitting failure internally can go some way to mitigating against our inability

to admit them publicly?

There’s a big difference between evaluating for the Arts Council (who don’t have time

to read them) and evaluating for yourself, where you can safely be more honest.

SIPA have ten goals, 3 economic, 3 environmental and 3 social sustainability… There

are clear goals against which you can evaluate. But what goals do we evaluate

against as an industry beyond those provided by ACE?

It’s rare that there’s an industry wide discussion of an organisational failings and when

there is, it quickly fritters out e.g., the discussions around gender inequality in

programming by Nick Hytner / Abbey

Evaluations of Project X at Barbican and Tricycle film festival conducted by external

consultants . with the intention of creating a document to help other organisations deal

with ‘ethics crises’.

The inter-museum ethics committee provides this function for museums. We do not

have an equivalent in the theatre ecology. Are there others we can examine and learn


Tonic - examining systemic gender diversity failures and then consulting on solutions

with the affected organisations. Self-set targets to achieve evaluated after 2 years.

Why don’t we name and shame organisations that we know to be failing? - Could

there be some sort of Trip Adviser/ Air bnb based system of reviews? But how would

that work with genuine bad practice/ misconduct or illegal activities? Legal implications

are prohibitive.

Perhaps when interviewing to work for an organisation, we should ask potential

employers to identify how they have failed and learned from it.


Good governance is vital in weeding out bad practice

There is a necessity for enforced limited terms for board members (reelection





Board members should perhaps be appointed by an impartial third party.

Board members should have regular contact/consultation with staff members at all

levels in an organisation.

There is a real benefit in recruiting board members from outside the arts industry to

encourage interrogation of practices and assumptions.

Basic good practice of organisational risk register and skills audits should be made

compulsory as condition of NPO funding.

Much of the data that reveals bad practice is freely available in the public domain, but

is so scattered and opaque that it is difficult for the majority of people to collate. A

forum that made this public domain information freely and easily available in a

digestible format would enable practitioners within the industry to hold each other

more directly to account.

An ACE ethics committee could be a central point of contact for anonymous


Where governance is failing, the Arts Council do need to hold organisations more

quickly and directly to account.

An appropriate response to a failing organisation might be for ACE to freeze funding

until the governance / executive team are replaced.

We acknowledge that ACE itself is woefully under resourced and staffed and there is

real difficulty in practically policing organisational practice. Strictly enforced policies to

ensure good governance would go far to mitigating the need for this.


In what situations beyond insolvency do the Arts Council withdraw funding?

Where governance fails because of Board incompetence or bad practice, is there any

outcome besides naming and shaming that can bring about change?

Do the Arts Council require a minimum level of cash reserve to be maintained?


evaluation, reporting, whistleblowing, Arts Funding, failure, Evaluation, arts funding,


Comments: 1

Elspeth Murray, 13 January 2016

Hi Rebecca, Thanks for this report. Sounds like the rest of the session was really interesting. I like it when governance gets

aired in a way that is relevant and purposeful rather than stodgy!

I've added a couple of sketches in a separate report here.