Keith Motson likens What Next? to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for arts professionals.

Those who know me well know that I am a huge West Wing fan. I have all the box sets, could quote lines from most episodes and it introduced to me a fascination for American politics that my wife finds baffling and weird. After this blog post she may not be the only one...

However, those who are familiar with the series will know that “What next?” is a familiar West Wing dialogue line. A constant urging to move on and deal with the next big thing on the list. The desire to keep being constructive, not sitting back and being content with where we are. A constant desire to do well or be productive or just show that you are trying to do something.

This week’s conference of the What Next? movement marked a definite moment when the industry turned round and said, “OK, what next?” in an attempt to move forward. But, and this is where I struggle a little, I am not sure whether when we said “What next” we all said the same thing.

I have worked in the arts for long enough now to know that sporadically there is an attempt, often born out of one person’s or organisation’s frustration, to galvanise the sector into action behind a single call to arms. A day’s conference and networking and all manner of ‘open space’ type activities bring people together and hopefully inspire us all to go back to our organisations with the hope that some will carry through with promises to keep the momentum going and that the collective noise will be loud enough for someone, probably Government, to hear and to come to our aid.

Perhaps it was because that this conference didn’t follow this pattern that led my confused brain to Tweet during the afternoon: “Wondering whether I am alone in thinking that What Next seems very much like What We’ve Always Done. Where are the radical ideas?#wn2013”. I was frustrated that the things I had heard from the platform and from other people didn’t seem particularly revolutionary or indeed actually very different from what we have been doing for a while. I often think that the Arts doesn’t really know what it is like not to be facing a huge crisis but we are certainly facing one now. No-one as far as I can recall ever mentioned Maria Miller’s speech about Economic Impact, and unless I was particularly inattentive at any point no one mentioned it from the platform, but surely the underlying economic environment and funding landscape stretching out before us is the most pressing element at the moment? So, we all wanted to know, what was next on the list of impossible dreams that would be the long searched for silver bullet to make our crisis a little smaller?

So it was with some difficulty that later in the day I tried to explain to people what it was that What Next? was all about. After struggling for a moment the best I came up with was: “Well, it seems to me like it’s a bit like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for arts professionals”. (I mean, I have never been to an AA meeting but I know what one looks like from TV so…) And then a thought struck me and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. At the ABO we do networking and peer support pretty well, and we do it a number of times a year. We get all the various tranches of orchestral managers (marketing, development, finance, chief execs. etc) together for a whole day twice a year to share concerns, triumphs, to talk about the world we all work in, to look at where partnerships are good and may be made better and where others can learn from our mistakes. We ask them what they need and we try and deliver some tailored support. But the most important aspect is that it is an irreplaceable forum in which to discover that you are not alone, that there are other people out there that are probably thinking the same thing or that can help you realise what your own thoughts are.

Somebody once said “How can I tell you what I think until I have heard myself say it?” (The Internet lets me down as to actually who that person was – sorry). What Next? to me, is that incredibly valuable thing – a forum where No Idea is Too Stupid. It is a safe place to say, “I want to move on to the next thing, but I don’t know where to start.” It might be a place to approach others and see if they feel the same and whether if the journey is taken together might it not be a little less difficult. Or it might just be a place where you can hear yourself say what you really think.

I don’t know yet whether this new movement will succeed in making a step change in the arts, though there is clearly some momentum and that is surely not a bad thing. But let’s not stop asking.

"When I say 'what's next?’ it means I'm ready to move on to other things."

Keith Motson is Membership & Communications Manager for the Association of British Orchestras

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