A varied group of people are sat on chairs in a circle, in an outdoor, lush and leafy space, perhaps a park or a garden. Dappled sunlight falls upon them through the surrounding trees. There are about 15 of them, some writing in notebooks whilst the others appear to be talking.
Photo by Jo Verrent of a previous Unlimited event.

14 things I learnt from the Producer Farm 

Our Senior Producer, Jo Verrent, was selected to be part of this year’s Producer Farm cohort. Producer Farm is a joint initiative from Bristol Old Vic Ferment, Coombe Farm Studios, Dance Umbrella, Fuel and In Between Time responding to a need for support and on-going training for arts producers. It’s a week-long residency to provide time and space in an invigorating environment for producers to refresh their current practice, and consider future potential. So what takeaways did she bring back to Unlimited? 

Taking a week out is always a challenge, and yet always brings immense rewards. A week out in the company of your producer peers (now solid friends), a curated programme of speakers and guests, exemplary food and surroundings and even a fantastic wild swim was certainly enough to get me firing on all cylinders. Here are my top 14 takeaways:  

    1. Climate Emergency – it’s not enough to sign petitions and go on marches. To run artistic programmes that will result in net zero emissions by 2025 (as required to sign up to Culture Declares) will require thought, planning and ingenuity especially in relation to international touring. Since Producer Farm I’ve done two international events by video instead of by travelling. It’s not much, but it’s a start… Much more on this to come. Anyone else working on this, let me know because I need buddies here!


    1. Audiences – this was another biggy. Audiences or participants? Is it a transaction or a community? What do you want from your audience apart from bums on seats? If more, what are you offering them? Lots of talk about local audiences – geographic or in relation to communities, and also online audiences, very much seen as a growth area for the future (hurrah for those of us experiencing chronic fatigue, we might get a wider choice soon!).


    1. The importance of making space for fragility – this might be in relation to art or artists, or simply in relation to one’s own way of being in the world. Often there is immense beauty in fragility, but it needs the correct conditions to survive. I came back determined to nurture my own fragility further and to take better care of others too. It reminded me of the blog Amble Skuse wrote for us recently.


    1. It is linked to, but not quite the same as, care – what does a caring institution look like? What does self care really mean when you have a busy week ahead? Strongly referenced was Ria Hartley’s Ecologies of Care if you’ve not yet come across it.


    1. This one is a steal from the climate activists – Tell the truth. Are we telling the truth about the arts industry to new people coming in? are we telling the truth to our funders about the data we can get, or the capacity we have? Also linked to the concept of ‘good enough’ – we can’t always reach our highest levels of achievement. Can we be honest about this too and be clear about what ‘good enough’ might look like?


    1. Recognise the trade offs – nothing is perfect, everything has strings. Be open and clear about what they are. Just acknowledging that there is a trade off happening can take some of the pressure off. And if you are clear it’s a trade off, it can make it easier to understand when and where it steps over the line for you.


    1. Policy protects the institutions not the individuals – The arts are based on the unique talents and skills of artists, who are often the lowest paid and in the most precarious situations. How did that happen? And how come so many of our policies throughout the cultural sector protect the status quo and leave individual artists struggling? Time for a change.


    1. No one gets it right all the time – We spoke about calling in and not calling out. If something is wrong or could be done or said better – speak to the person one on one, support them, befriend them, let them have time and space to consider different viewpoints. Don’t bully them, especially online. If you want change then support change to happen.


    1. Central to lots of the conversations were values, principles and behaviours – and the fact that whilst we think it’s the values that matter most, it’s often the behaviours. Your values don’t mean much if they can’t be seen and noted by others. Listen out for what people say about you. Do they mention your values often? No? Then are you really delivering on them?


    1. How do we get out of our bubbles? – On or off line, we only know who we know, and it’s easy to assume that those we know, like us, have it all ‘right’. Rubbish. Our world view is shaped or narrowed by our experiences and the experiences of people we know. Basically get out more, talk to people you don’t know, make space for different views. Brilliant stuff in connection to this was sparked online from an episode of Queer Eye featuring Wesley Hamilton, a black disabled man – read this and most importantly, this.


    1. Whilst we were in Devon, Jonzi D spoke about the need to force out the arrogance within the arts world – to ensure more people can feel at home there. It made me really want to look at what we do and who ‘fits in’ and who doesn’t? Why the walls? What are we saying by creating spaces and places where only some people feel at home?


    1. Very topical for me – we spoke about community design versus single vision – about when to open up to consultation and how. Everything can’t be designed by everyone, but the key elements and aspects can if the process is designed that way.


    1. Another concept I liked was not to wait until an idea is perfect – but to try a small experiment. If you want to change something, just try a different approach and see if it works. If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, maybe tinker more. This iterative approach is well known to the tech world and can reap dividends in the arts. Just get experimenting!


    1. And finally, I loved this – ‘beware the thundering hooves’. You know when you have delegated something to someone else and you think it might be about to tip over and fail. It’s oh so easy to ride in and ‘save the day’ rather than support from the sidelines to get things on track. This is a note to watch out for that impulse to ‘saviour’. It’s not needed and it’s not helpful. And the only person it makes feel good is you. So stop it. Listen out for those hooves and take note!

Massive thanks to all my cohort pals, and to Bristol Old Vic Ferment, Coombe Farm Studios, Dance Umbrella, Fuel and In Between Time for investing in Producer Farm for such an inspiring week. I promise to keep pushing my practice and learning as a result!