Neil Blunt believes that formal training methods which address generalities with broad truisms can often be as unhelpful as they are expensive. He explains why mentoring offers an effective alternative.
In a sector, which is otherwise highly committed to the concept of evaluation, those of us working in arts-focused training and development can sometimes be accused of running scared. It?s a difficult one. Training providers produce highly efficient events and have the ?happy sheets? to prove it (Presenter ? well turned out, articulate and polite; Room ? spacious, well lit and comfortably warm; Refreshments ? adequate, but why no fruit teas?). Given a good match between subject matter and attender, we can be reasonably sure that at least some learning takes place; and trainers have subtle methods of extorting promises that it will be put into practice on return to work. But proving that anything different eventually comes to pass as result takes us into a different time frame altogether, where the relationship between learning and change becomes tenuous at best.
The personal touch
The prize for effectiveness goes to those experiences which feature key individuals (be they tutors, managers, friends, or strangers on a train) who have made a very specific and very personal contribution input to another person, at that especially critical time when it was most needed. This can be short-term or life-long. In some cases it will be later recognised as what we broadly understand to be mentoring.
And very powerful it is too - which is why so many attempts have been made to harness relationships of this kind in support of educational, artistic, professional and commercial development. Like all genuinely good things in life, however, mentoring doesn?t lend itself easily to being packaged. The evidence of faulty and failed schemes demonstrates clearly that linking two people together with a general brief for the more experienced to make something happen for the other does not always deliver the desired outcomes; and it takes more than an A4 briefing sheet to place structured mentoring relationships into a workable context. Simply applying the label to a series of unfocussed meetings will do little other than raise false expectations, and lead to frustration.
A structured model
Given that mentoring, applied effectively, is so valuable, how then do we widen its availability to practitioners in the arts sector, without wasting more scarce resources?
The East Midlands Arts (EMA) Mentoring Programme, managed by Arts Training Central, was launched in spring 2002, following an extensive review of existing models, and with a conscious commitment to avoiding past mistakes.
In particular it set out to:
? Ensure that the application process significantly raised awareness of mentoring among potential mentees and mentors, exploring ways in which the scheme could be used most effectively, when and by whom, before they went on to apply for inclusion. They were encouraged to see mentoring as one of a range of options they might consider, and which was far more appropriate under some circumstances than others. In this way people were discouraged from applying simply because it was available and were signposted towards more viable alternatives.
? Encourage applicants to define and develop very specific objectives related to their artistic and professional practice, and to propose outcomes from their mentoring relationship which were going to be realisable within the framework of the scheme. ?Life-long mentoring? was held to be the exception rather than the norm.
? Place the relationship between mentor and mentee on a professional footing to build the confidence in both parties. Whilst this is a clear departure from traditional models, it made links which would not otherwise have been made, and clarified expectations and obligations. Mentors were offered an initial fee of £500 plus expenses, covering a notional six meetings, but there has been no evidence that anyone became involved solely for the money.
? Develop an advanced and genuinely effective support structure behind the relationships, including introductory seminars, support documentation, personal aptitude tests, and a detailed briefing from an experienced panel; plus ongoing back up throughout. This was coupled with a very simplified and streamlined application system, so that applicants? efforts pre-entry to the scheme were geared towards learning about the process not towards filling in forms. Third party evaluation of the scheme has highlighted this as a key strength.
To date 27 pairings have been supported by the scheme, and it is understood that EMA intends to provide for it long-term. The ongoing availability is crucial in enabling artists to apply when it is most appropriate to their needs, rather than be led by the ad-hoc release of funds. Significantly, the successes of the scheme are already becoming clear in tangible terms, with mentees reporting the satisfaction of clearly defined short-term goals with long-term implications.
It has been a popular initiative among visual artists, where already two practitioners producing very different types of work have engaged successfully with the same freelance curator to re-evaluate their work in a gallery context, working towards specific exhibitions but with a wider goal relating to the future professional relationships they need to build. In other instances there has been an emphasis on the importing of new techniques into existing work, including a painter who is currently working with a photographer to explore the use of camera technique and digitization in composing abstract landscapes.
Elsewhere members of a performance company have worked with an arts project manager to refine their devising process; a one-woman theatre company has worked with another artist to enable her to work objectively with a body of intensely personal material as she dramatises it; other performers have worked with more experienced practitioners on aspects of company formation or their long-term career plans. A musician/conductor has worked with a music educator to adapt her work to workshops with young children, while a highly regarded local singer is working with a touring and recording artist to develop approaches to working with promoters and venue managers; and a reggae band is linking with a poet to develop its own education programme for schools.
Light touch monitoring
Although funding is allocated for a notional six half-day meetings, the format is entirely subject to negotiation, the underlying criteria being that the Advisory Panel needs to be convinced that it will work and expects its own observations and recommendations to be acknowledged. Applicants are not obliged to submit a summative evaluation, and this has been a good decision, if only on the grounds that it hasn?t been necessary. So far, (with one exception), every pairing accepted onto the scheme has impressed by the seriousness of its intent, the clear commitment in its proposal, the quality of its voluntary reportage, and the enthusiasm with which they have related the outcomes. In many cases mentees have been so impressed by their progress that they have been falling over themselves to tell us about it!
In over a decade of working in arts training I have rarely encountered such clear benefits from a development programme, and that it is one which is so flexible in covering the full range of personal, creative, organisational and business-related subjects makes it all the more valuable.
Neil Blunt is Programme Director of Arts Training Central e: firstname.lastname@example.org. Further details of the EMA Mentoring Scheme and other Arts Training Central programmes are at http://www.artstrainingcentral.co.uk