Spring Conference Collaboration Is Key

Posted on March 23, 2018 in News & Reviews, Scotland

Panel: Jenny Niven (Creative Scotland), Niall Dolan (John Byrne Award), Nicole Brandon (Scottish Book Trust)
Chair: Daiden O’Regan

We’ll only be able to take on the world if we learn how to work as a team, so we got three brilliant professionals from across the creative sector to tell us all about the collaborative projects that have been rocking their worlds lately.

Scottish Book Trust’s Young Writers Programme Manager Nicole Brandon kicked us off with a presentation on the What’s Your Story? programme. As she observed, everyone in the room who grew up in Scotland had probably encountered SBT before, as the organisation supports Scottish readers and writers from “before you’re born ‘til after you’re dead”. SBT’s reach is huge and they work collaboratively for the collective benefit of Scotland’s literary life and wellbeing, along the way trying to represent as many voices as possible. However, it isn’t always easy; in fact, with What’s Your Story?, the development programme for teenage writers and illustrators in Scotland, “the only easy thing has been the decision to continue.” SBT and Nicole are at the forefront of innovative safeguarding practice because what they do – working in collaboration with the young people the programme to serves – is so unique. The work is unprecedented and cutting-edge – just one example of how collaboration leads to innovation.

Niall Dolan introduced The John Byrne Award, an online competition and platform for 16-25 year olds in Scotland to showcase their artwork. Participants are invited to make a creative statement about what they value, which will be in the running for one of the £100 prizes awarded monthly. There is also an annual prize of £1000. He showed a series of slides of some beautiful visual art submissions, and explained the meaning and methods behind each. Meaningful values are at the core of what they do. Unlike the example of What’s Your Story?, the John Byrne Award’s collaboration is remote and retrospective. Nevertheless, there is a reciprocal relationship between the award and entrants. Submissions are typically marked with frankness and honesty; Niall considers it courageous to say something so personal so publicly, and therefore the responsibility is on the John Byrne Award to treat entries with respect. This collaborative effort particularly values trust and honouring responsibility.

Finally, Creative Scotland’s Head of Literature, Languages and Publishing Jenny Niven told us all about Muriel Spark 100. For years preceding 2018, Muriel Spark’s centenary had been recognised as a singular moment in Scottish literary history, thoroughly deserving of a landmark celebration. Jenny noted wryly that 10 years ago, if you proposed such an endeavour, you would likely be able to avail yourself of a pot of cash. In 2018, there were more limited funds to stretch out – but this became one of the most satisfying elements of the process. She acknowledged Katie West’s point from an earlier panel that it is key to have a good idea – and at the right time. Now was the perfect time to celebrate Spark, who was internationalist, feminist and undercelebrated. Creative Scotland opted for a partnership approach, employing a coordinator for the project who was jointly employed by NLS and Creative Scotland. The centenary editions published by Birlinn were also an important part of the project, as it was essential to have the back catalogue available and also to make small amounts of money go as far as possible. Jenny’s takeaways were to have a great idea, key goals, and a rationale for partnering at the very beginning of the collaboration. It is important especially to have the latter established and communicated early. On communication, Jenny said to work out right at the beginning the how/who/when of communicating, but to bear in mind that it’s good to track progress – you want to keep people with you.

Following the presentations, Daiden O’Regan chaired a discussion between the panellists, during which several common threads were picked up despite how different the projects appeared. The panel discussed the aims and goals of their collaborative efforts. Niall’s aim is to help artists see their work as valuable. The awards ceremony is deliberately swanky, underlining the fact that the artists are putting their work on a national platform.

On the actual collaborative process, Jenny spoke of a mix of ambition and realism – Muriel Spark 100 key players had a lot of collective resources, but it isn’t always easy to work out how to harness that. Nicole pointed out that the young people she works with are all individuals and she pays close attention to everything, including what’s between the lines. Jenny echoed the sentiment that personal relationships are particularly key, adding that there is something to be said for asserting who does what and making roles clear. But of course, unlike Nicole and SBT, the Muriel Spark 100 coordinators owed no duty of care to anyone.

Nicole said that organisations and individuals are both dismissive of young people, and scared to work with them. Young people are patronised, marginalised, and demonised. This is one of the remarkable aspects of What’s Your Story?’s collaborative model: the responsibility to build the programme is as much theirs as it is Nicole’s. But, she reminded us, What’s Your Story? isn’t cute, nice, or civic-minded: “we do it because it matters”.

We do it because it matters. That was certainly one of the messages I took away from the conference: this industry we’re in has the potential to change the world. In publishing, we have the chance to do something meaningful. Whether we’re celebrating upcoming young artists or the centenaries of cultural icons, we’re working together to share creative work, putting a little more beauty and empathy out into the world.

Blog by Sarah Barnard, SYP Scotland Conference Committee 2018