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Pushing Watershed's Dick Penny into The Space, Arts Council England's New Digital Platform Created in Partnership With the BBC

01/05/2012 09:24 | Updated 30 June 2012

It's a good job the café is empty. Dick Penny is animated when excited; his language is loud and rich in profanity.

We are discussing arts funding in the UK. There is a lot of swearing going on.

Penny is a man on a mission, searching for a more joined-up approach. Watershed Media Centre, where he is Managing Director has an unsurpassed reputation for being collaborative. It lives and thrives on a sense that people work best when they can work together, each bringing different things to the mix. For Penny, it's obvious:

'I don't like hierarchy - a good idea is a good idea, doesn't matter where it comes from. Why should you only be able to make things happen if you are at the top of an organisation?'

Not everyone likes it. Some people find Watershed's approach unconventional - if you want to be told what to do, it's not the place for you. But if you want to make something happen, then you could do a lot worse than get yourself down to Bristol. And it's a strong business model:

'Anyone who takes a rational look at us - in terms of reputation, output, engagement, direction of travel, and critically in terms of finances goes 'fuck, you're a stable, robust organisation.' And in a commercial world, that's what you invest in - you don't invest in failing things. But this isn't how it is for arts funding here - we have this tightrope - get told don't be too successful...'

But Penny likes a challenge, having built a reputation as a fire fighter through sorting out a number of difficult situations, most recently saving Bristol Old Vic and helping to set up numerous initiatives such as Connecting Bristol. He likens it to going on a walk - you can walk, but its more fun to puff up some serious hills - you better appreciate the view, and for a few minutes you have a sense of achievement.

'I enjoy the climb, but once you have done the same climb too many times in a row, it starts to get boring. You have to look for bigger hills.'

So what hills are out there? Well, on the 1st May 2012, a new digital platform opens, Arts Council England's The Space, created in partnership with the BBC. So surely the godfather of digital in the UK wanted to be climbing up there from the off?

'When it first came up - I just thought 'Nooooo - not another policy driven initiative from the centre, with stupid timeframes - we are not going to be diverted by the lure of cash. Loads of people got in touch and asked us to partner. We said 'no thanks' because we could not see the sense.'

And yet there is Watershed with one of the largest commissions in The Space. What happened?

'Simply, someone came up with a good idea - an idea that was too important to duck - an idea from the periphery - where most of the good ideas are, if you can find them. The Space was immediately an opportunity with purpose.'

I know this already; I came up with the good idea. I can stand testament to Penny's approach in action. I emailed him out of the blue, never having met the man before, and now both he and I and a team of others are firmly in The Space.

So what was the idea that changed Penny's mind? It's PUSH ME - focusing on 12 artists who are making work for the Cultural Olympiad, all of whom are pushing themselves beyond their personal best. It's capturing their inspirations, the impacts of their work and then the culmination at the Southbank in the Unlimited Festival in September through a series of 90 second films and a documentary, and pushing it out there for a wider reach. There are symphonies of sirens, inflatable avatars, underwater wheelchairs - all beautifully ambitious work and the artists are all disabled, but that's not really the point.

'PUSH ME isn't about disability, its about artists who are pushing themselves. Actually, it's about pushing the whole team. At Watershed we are learning through PUSH ME - one of the areas of learning is around access - captioning and audio description. And its not always a comfortable experience.'

Penny isn't a man who likes to be, or let's himself be, too comfortable. For all the maverick positioning, there is unease around ego, a constant questioning around validity:

'I've been doing two things at Watershed - one is doing the job I was employed to do, run the organisation as a successful arts organisation that has stability and a future, and the other is trying to change the culture of our city. Quite nakedly. I regularly have conflict with myself about whether I should be doing half the things I'm doing. Are they good for me, good for Watershed, good for the city? And so that constant battle of is this legitimate? I'm synonymous with Watershed - so is it legitimate to put Watershed in the places I keep putting it?'

And when it is in balance? On the rare moments where everything does feel it holds together?

'When I have it in balance - time for a drink! I'd be happy.' And then he starts off again:

'That's another thing, this whole happiness agenda - Who the fuck wants to be happy? I'd be a complete alcoholic...'