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reviving the 50p seat at Citizens Theatre 21012 - ©

In today’s highly codified and regulated subsidised arts sectors, all sorts of business and quasi-business behaviours are required. Strategies, plans, systems for delivering objectives and for measuring success are all extremely useful tools.  But in the days before market principles were applied to public expenditure, and before 25 years of increased public expenditure on the arts led not only to more investment in artists, arts activity and buildings but also to a proliferation of policy makers and monitors, there were far less requirements.  The weight of encouragement which public agencies provide to extol arts organisations to  ‘innovate’  , to improve or change their ‘ business models’ and to train their boards and leaders in being more ‘entrepreneurial’ and strategic, for example, could give the impression that arts leaders do not naturally do these things for themselves – left to their own devices.

But successful leaders in the arts have always taken risks and often demonstrated a razor-sharp instinct for business as an essential element of achieving ambitions to create great art and to attract audiences to enjoy and appreciate it.  Long before Glasgow had any cultural policy or arts development officers and when the Scottish Arts Council was a small organisation with a few officers, these was some serial innovation happening in the Gorbals under the direction of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald.  Not only did they transform the Theatre artistically but they attracted an audience of a size and demographic mix which would turn today’s  ‘audience development’ agency green with envy.  The reputation of the productions was the greatest factor in this and there were also all sorts of experiments including the radical ‘All Seats 50p’ policy.  I have gone back to the box office and financial records to assess the effect of this and the detailed results are in this article for the Scottish International Journal of Theatre and Screen. This shows how, at the same time as its cheap seat policy,  the Citz increased and diversified audiences at the same time as increasing its box office income while also attracting additional subsidy and putting more money into the work.  It did this through some luck  and some clever tactics, not least an extremely commercial approach to its annual pantomime, for which the tickets were not 50p.  It was not all plain sailing, with the SAC at one point granting  the Citz 5% less than the other Scottish producing theatres on the ground that the Citz refused to increase its ticket prices. And subsequent innovations, like no advance booking, were less successful.

Havergal was a risk taker, refuse-to-take-no for an answer leader with a mission to produce and present great work for the audiences of Glasgow. The Citz directors did not use business plans or strategies to shape their innovation but rather an intuitive experimentation. The simple mantra for all innovation, whether artistic or business was, as Philip Prowse often said “Not to change in art is to die”. A ‘taught’ entrepreneur AKA a manager using established business tools and techniques, would not have considered a flat ‘low’ ticket price after what had been three years of growth in revenues and attendances. But for Havergal, there was no formal strategy, no management objectives, no annual review. “ I don’t think we knew what had happened. We just looked at the money we had for the year ahead”.

Havergal and Prowse did it to shatter the inherited mould of complicated ticketing and to see if that might attract more and different people. The experiment was successful not only in its contribution to attracting additional audiences but in achieving more income from public bodies. The Havergal regime led the way on innovation, income generation and audience development and the public funders followed. In today’s arts funding system which is heavy on policy, strategy, measurement and evaluation, could similar theatrical entrepreneurialism flourish?

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Photographs : Will Pryce/Arcaid. Courtesy Rafael Viñoly Architects courtesy e-architect.co.uk

The Arts Council of England has published its Assessment of the impact of the additional £100m plus it invested in theatres from 2003 -2007. Responding to a detailed report  by consultants Anne Millman and Jodi Myers,  Barbara Matthews, ACE’s Director of Theatre Strategy focuses on ‘issues we can do something about’.  These include those issues which have recurred over the decades – do something about touring, show leadership, improving the connection with others and sorting out some of the grants systems and processes.  And these  include the old chestnut of short term instrumental funding for various initiatives which arts organisations have complained about for years.

The detailed findings are divided into two parts. -what people in the business think and what the evidence shows.  The qualitative assessment celebrates the confidence and energy of the theatre sector in the light of the additional investment and the improvements in production values and work for young people.  It also points out, while the world of theatre has changed fairly radically over the last few years, with less and less of the work taking place in theatre buildings and with new collaborative forms,  the sector as a whole has not really embraced the digital age.

The quantitative assessment viewed in isolation makes scary reading:  A comparison of a subset of 74 theatres shows that, over the 4 years 02/03  to 06/07:

  • staff increased by over 50%
  • the number of performances increased by some 50% BUT
  • audiences overall were static at best, and remain lacking in diversity
  • therefore the average number attending each performance fell

The subsidy per attendance is not shown but will have increased by a significant margin, given that the costs per performance have increased significantly and less people have attended each performance.

The total costs of the investment include:

  • the additional £25m pa for the 4 years
  • grants for the arts
  • ‘managed funds’  -instrumental specific initiatives
  • capital projects (£303m for theatres)
  • stabilisation and recovery programmes

Plus the additional machinery, the audience development agencies and one off projects. And this is Arts Council investment – it does not include local authority subsidy.

A crude analysis of ‘value for money’ of the extra funding in itself  could not validate the success of the extra millions.

Moving forward though, we need to recognise the way that 21st theatres have evolved.  Its less about the simple acts of putting on performances in the theatre for audiences to attend. An A list theatre – a strategically significant and highly funded building based company, not only will be extending the form of the art but also the reach and collaboration with audiences.  Theatre takes place more and more outside of the auditorium.  Regional theatres have a rich and pivotal role to play within their communities.

The current measures of success for public investment in these theatres are based on the 20th century model of theatre, average attendance and the like.  In addition, public funders look for measures to demonstrate achievement of instrumental objectives, diversity etc.

We need to overhaul the system of metrics used to weigh success.  Our A list 21st century theatres need to be trusted to vision, plan and deliver the best theatre and creative experiences for their communities in and out of the buildings, collaboratively and digitally.

The extra millions have created a strong base of well funded, well staffed, confident, capable theatres in buildings fit for purpose, led by highly experienced and trained leaders.  Surely its time now to let them take the lead and determine their own metrics.

ACE commits to showing leadership and is consulting on its plans for a theatre strategy. Lets hope this includes light touch funding for the A list theatres, with maybe five years of funding provided on the basis of a set of agreed outcomes and measures of success agreed by all parties at the outset.

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The process of reduction of 20th century cultural institutions and dismantling of the machinery intensified last week with the publication of the McCarthy report in Ireland declaring open season on challenges to the cultural public sector. Two weeks ago the Arts Council of England announced its proposals to cut 131 staff.  Last week  DCMS forewarned of  the £100m ‘black hole’ in its budget likely to result in mothballing of various capital projects including  Tate Modern, British Museum and BFI. “Let the elite’s building funds dry up. Outside, cultural Britain is flourishingwrote Simons Jenkins in the Guardian.    Comments on the piece by that well known group of Guardian readers – educated, cultured, liberal, leftie etc – more or less all agreed with him.

Over in Ireland the ‘An Bord Snip’ report by Colm McCarthy, signalled the lancing of the unaffordable public sector in Ireland.  McCarthy is looking for savings of some €5.3bn across the board and in the arts and creative industries this includes the abolishment of the Irish Film Board and Culture Ireland as well as reductions in the amount of funding to the Arts Council.  There is also a recommendation to consider the abolishment of the Department of Arts Sports and Tourism in the context of severe reductions in the funding and activities of that Department and as a means to generate additional savings in the cost of Government administration.

Of course the bluntness of the proposals has been greeted by an outcry from those in the arts and creative industries.  At the opening of the new Druid Theatre in Galway Festival last week, Gary Hynes, director of Druid Theatre and Pat Moylan, Chair of the Arts Council spoke up for the arts and the cultural and economic value they generate.  In all the hullaballoo, the cause most worth fighting for is having a Culture Minister at the Cabinet table.  Its less about the money, more about the influence.

No one can be unrealistic about the current economic crisis and the need to reduce public expenditure.  We need to ensure that we preserve the artistic capability to survive the recession. But this does not mean retaining the status quo, either in terms of the arts we subsidise or in terms of the machinery and organisations we retain.

The world has changed with the global economic crisis and climate change.  And is changing fast with the development of the internet.  20th century arts and culture can no longer be regarded as the only creative industries worthy of support.  The creative industries as a sector  includes interactive and digital media and this is where there is the greatest potential for growth, innovation and cultural, social and economic benefit.  Digital media and internet communication has already inspired innovative Iphone Apps, games, web drama and other open source art, photography and music products, services and artefacts.  The platforms encourage personalised experiences and collaboration which are not dependent on travelling to a city to an event at a particular time, which may be free and which are close to carbon neutral.  Interactive games is a sector where the UK and Scotland in particular is a global leader and where public support can deliver significant economic impact.

The internet has also revolutionised the way we can operate businesses – including the cultural agencies which are currently under threat. Many of the costs associated with running these agencies accrue from managing the complex administration systems required pre today’s technological capabilities.

We need to reduce the number, size and cost of public agencies and need to make sure that these public agencies operate expertly, swiftly and efficiently to make strategic interventions across the arts and creative industries, working in partnership with economic agencies.  This is what is proposed for Creative Scotland.

We need to support artists, to nurture talent and to retain core cultural organisations, as centres of excellence in an art form, like national theatres, or as regional creative hubs, providing neutral enabling spaces for creative experiences.  The agencies should delegate or contract out activity and programmes to them instead of running them themselves. We need to get as much of the resources as possible into the arts and creative experiences and reduce the cost of the machinery to do this.

We will need to lose many workers in the arts and culture.  Artists, actors, musicians, writers, dancers, craftspeople, technicians, designers, directors are by nature both freelance and adaptive.  The salaried staff who will be made redundant as the cultural machinery is dismantled are a mixed bag of professionals.  Most of them, administrators, marketers, managers, are passionate about the arts and have a creative and positive approach to work.  While some will stay employed, society could benefit from their skills in other ways.  Most have transferable skills could improve the performance of many other public and private organisations with their creativity and enthusiasm.  Most could also contribute towards creative experiences in their own communities through volunteering in schools and community organisations, as we can presume less and less professional community arts activity and more need to get involved with schools   Many could mentor others. A benefit of a shrinking economy could be a higher valuing of non professionalised arts activities.

Some should transfer their skills to the new creative industries but working not for the ‘boulder’ organisations of the 20th century but as ‘pebbles’, small and independent (as defined by Charles Leadbetter).  Those people are the more entrepreneurial types. Some few will be lucky enough to be made redundant by the public sector and could use their redundancy pay to set up and some are fortunate enough to be supported by independent means.  Others need support in setting up as a small enterprise.  The Arts Council of England and the New Deal of the Mind published last week a report Do it yourself: cultural and creative self-employment in hard times which makes the case for DPW to set up a success to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme of the 80s which supported the establishment of a very significant body of sustainable creative industries.  That’s just what we need now, for many of our young artists and creative practitioners and also for the not so young cultural support worker.

And what of the new streamlined public agencies?  We need the best leaders and creative professionals in these agencies, experts in the arts, culture and creative industries.  There used to be a tradition (and still is in some rare examples) where our top creative people transferred in and out of the cultural agencies and to and from the coalface as artists or entrepreneurs.  We should have fixed term contracts in these agencies just as we do for boards and for artistic directors.

The dismantling of 20th century cultural machinery is inevitable but lets get the best of benefits from our creative workers in new settings.

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The success of the  live screening of the National Theatre’s Phedre this week in 70 cinemas through NT  Live has sent up a flare signalling the future for theatre and how it can  become both exponentially more democratically accessible and available and also more economically viable.

That most esteemed of theatre critics, Michael Billington, was at the Chelsea Cinema for the premiere and his review in The Guardian surely will startle the doubters and traditionalists of the theatre world  who believe that being in the auditorium is the only place for the play.

He writes:

I came to a startling conclusion: the production worked even better in the cinema than it did in the Lyttelton. And the implications of that are enormous.

Once the show started, I and the rest of the audience sat spellbound. For a start, Bob Crowley’s set, with its sweeping platform and vast open sky, looked beautiful: I could even see, as I couldn’t in the theatre, how the palace walls were pocked and weathered by time. Robin Lough, using five multi-video cameras, also directed Hytner’s production impeccably for the screen: the cameras took us inside the action, allowed us to see faces in close-up and framed characters against the blue cyclorama, investing them with an epic quality.

So what does the success of this screen Phèdre tell us? Partly that a cinema audience can be as moved as people sitting in the theatre: everyone applauded loudly at the curtain call just as if they were in the Lyttelton. But the main lesson is that a theatre production can be made democratically available to a mass audience without any loss of quality: indeed because the camera can mix close-up and long shot and because we can all hear easily, the aesthetic impact may actually be enhanced. For generations we have been told that the theatre is elitist. Last night it was shown that a supposedly difficult classical tragedy can speak simultaneously to people across the globe. The National already has plans to broadcast three more plays over the next year. But my hunch is that this is only the beginning of a revolution in making theatre available in ways of which we had never dreamed.

With the advent of 3D screening, the potential for further extending the availability and intensity of the theatrical experience will be increased.  Live screening will revolutionise the business model for theatre and make it more economically viable for those theatre companies able to produce great work and then sell more tickets than available for the performance in the theatre.

The ramifications for our current theatre infrastructure could be profound.  If we can all have access to world class national and top flight theatre in our comfortable cinemas at low cost, will we be still be willing to take the risk attending our local theatres where not only will the offer be less reliable but we have to queue for the loos?

Will the public funders, confronted by the constraints of their less public sector resources over the next period, be willing to continue to subsidise some of the companies and venues which they have supported in more prosperous times?

We need to recognise the revolution in theatre making and embrace the potential to make great theatre available to all of us.  We need more local, collaborative and community theatre projects and we also need to provide venues which will house the live screenings of great theatre, now and in the 3D future.  This means that communities should have creative hubs, neutral centres for creative experiences including screenings, debates and discourse, performances and socialising, a 21st century refreshments of the civic theatre of the 20th century.

montauban

Reports from the Theatres Trust Annual conference focus on where our theatres let us down in their suitability for great dramatic experiences in the 21st century.  And for 21st century expectations of  collaboration and comfort.

The tirade against black box theatres led by Jason Barnes and echoed by leading theatre directors, designers and architects chimes with the current vogue for theatre taking place out of the box and out of the proscenium arch.  Theatre critics are keener and keener on the site specific and on the visual art/digital cross art form theatre that is a feature of the age of convergence. There is a general ennui around plays in the theatre, prosc arch or black box demonstrated by a lack of growth in audiences and a lack of enthusiasm from critics and the profession.  This is not surprising in the internet age, as we want to collaborate more and more and the proscenium arch is a symbol of them and us and to and from, not we and with.

Culture Minister Barbara Follett and Bonnie Greer complained about the anachronistic conditions in most of our theatres which still sees most of us cramped and queuing for the toilets.  To say nothing of the inflexibility of the performance times at 730 in the evenings.

We also have to face the unpalatable truths about theatre in the 21st century.  Increased public subsidy across the board has neither delivered increased or extended audiences, nor sustained quality across the board.  And we have a recession which means that our present arsenal of theatres is probably not sustainable.

We have to question then, why are we  so intent on preserving theatre buildings?

The Theatres Trust Act 1976 was an important parliamentary act to prevent the previously unstoppable tearing down of theatres in the 20th century to make way for shopping centres and ring roads.  Truthfully, we had too many theatres 30 years ago as a legacy of the days before cinema and television, where theatres were the only real place for public entertainment.    There was not a commercial business model and neither sufficient audience demand nor sufficient supply of public money to prop up theatres which were surplus to requirement.  But we needed the Act and the Trust set up as a result to stop us  losing important national treasures represented by some of our fabulous theatre buildings.

The objects of the Trust are to promote the better protection of theatres for the benefit of the nation

theatre means any building or part of a building constructed wholly or mainly for the public performance of plays;

But should ‘protection’ of theatres for plays be the priority now?  We need great theatre and we need creative hubs throughout the land to provide a home for theatrical experiences.  We need all our creative and arts venues, and theatres, to provide contemporary conditions for the creative experience and audience comfort.  But the focus on preservation of theatres needs to be in the context of what we need our 21st century cultural infrastructure to be and not the other way round.

 

Parma Farnesiano

The time has come to dismantle some of the machinery we have created in the UK and in Ireland to support our arts infrastructure. We need to face some unpalatable truths about  the impact of the way that the arts and cultural venues have been subsidised over the last period. Change is demanded by our current economic situation as well as exponential changes in the way we can collaborate and communicate through the internet.  The subsidised arts world is amongst the most resistant to change.  We have created a proliferation of machinery which is convoluted and which is preventing the flow of creative experiences in some areas, with money tied up in buildings and overheads and energy tied up in administrative processes.

In Ireland now artists are debating this challenge. In  an article in the Irish Times today , Sean Love asks artists for their insights on how to lead Ireland ‘out of the abyss’ taking as a starting point Seamus Heaney: “We are disposed to believe that the work of artists helps to create our future . . . that the effort of creative individuals can promote a new order of understanding in the common mind.”

The filmmaker Alan Gilsenan highlights the importance of art and artists in social, political and idealogical change.

“I think we imagine our world out of our past, our hopes, our dreams, out of our mythologies. When we look back to the origins of the state, to the 1916 Proclamation, that rebellion was a work of art. As a military rebellion it was a disaster, but they were primarily artists making statements. They knew the value of symbols. What seemed to happen was that people like Pearse, McDonagh (minor writers with a revolutionary aspiration) and people like Yeats (major artists with a minor interest in politics) looked at our past and our cultural inheritance, and they invented this idea. The Ireland that we live in was imagined by our artists, and those artists included the signatories of the Proclamation.

To a large degree, we achieved that future, at least in practical terms. If you think of what people in the early 20th century were hoping for, a lot of that came true – confidence (veering into over-confidence, but that’s another story), prosperity, autonomy, a sense of ourselves in the world, a sense that we are the equal of any nation.

Unfortunately, for all the progress we made, a lot of that progress was one dimensional.

Meanwhile, at the Abbey Theatre, Tom Murphy’s brilliant play, the Last Days of  Reluctant Tryant powerfully and dramatically tells the story of that single pursuit of prosperity and its devastating effects. This is great art with a great playwright writing the story before we knew it was a story, in the way that great playwrights do.

But how many people will see this play?  Not enough. Its a big show and is currently planned to play only in Dublin.  It should be playing throughout Ireland, with debate around it. But in recent years the  Abbey has tended to stay in Dublin and not to tour and theatre provision in Ireland has been more diverse, with the Arts Council funding a rich mix of companies, big and small.

This week the Arts Council published its discussion document Examining new ways to fund the production and presentation of theatre in which it fundamentally challenges the impact of its own increased investment in theatre over the last 4 years – in the context of the major cuts to its grant in the current recession.

The available resources are neither sufficient to meet adequately the requirements of those in receipt of funding nor to provide for potential new artists and practitioners.

The increased investment in theatre production and for the programming of local venues has not translated into a corresponding increase in the availability of professional theatre for regional venues. This fundamental disconnection must be addressed, and maybe a redistribution of how resources are provided for the production and presentation of theatre is required

It points out that unpalatable truth which many of us resist because it threatens our jobs and our ability to make the work we want to, paid for by the state.  Years of increased investment in the arts haven’t necessarily created better work for more audiences.  We can also add this: All the years of investment in audience development, marketing professionals and agencies, in the UK more than in Ireland,  have neither expanded the market for theatre nor diversified the audience.

The vast majority of English adults have no encounters with theatre, street arts or circus; and those who do attend tend to do so relatively infrequently. Also those taking part in amateur theatre represent a very small minority .. there are many persisting socio-demographic inequalities in the levels of engagement.

Arts Council of England Taking Part Survey findings

So its time to challenge what, how much and how theatre is subsidised.    Increasing supply does not increase demand. Increased investment has not increased audiences. Increased investment has increased the quality of theatre in pockets – the National Theatre of Scotland being a shining example – but it has not delivered a sustained improvement across the board.

We need our theatre to be stimulating and engaging, loved and attended!  And that may mean LESS and not more.  This means challenging historical patterns of subsidy.  In the UK, much of this is driven by theatre buildings, built in the 20th and 19th centuries and preserved by the state.  In Ireland, the history is different and the investment over the last four years in production companies is what is being challenged.

We need to support our theatre artists to create great work which contributes to the national conversation and stimulates ideas and debate. That great work should be available across the nation.

And here is another unpalatable truth. For most audiences, brand and reputation are important and in small nations, the national theatre brand is particularly important.  The challenge we have is how to invest the state’s resources for maximum benefit. The Arts Council in Ireland offers some suggestions and there will be more around dismantling the theatre machinery and facing the unpalatable truths about how we have invested over the next months.

Colleges may be thought to be more conservative institutions than arts organisations, but this week’s report that three Edinburgh further education colleges are moving along a path towards merger has turned the tables.

It is shocking but not surprising that subsidised arts organisations have not taken the initiative to remodel and regroup through mergers to become fitter through the recession.   Subsidised arts organisations tend to batten down the hatches and use all endeavours to preserve their existing activity and business model in times of economic or other change.   They then look to the public funders to tell them to change, reward their change, or financially support any consideration and design of change.  And they don’t tend to take the initiative to change or remodel, relinquishing that responsibility to the public funders. 

This is a pity, because there are some great creative and managerial skills in arts organisations which could be applied to regrouping and merging to create 21st century creative enterprises.  These enterprises should have a strong core with a flexible body able to contract and expand according to need and priorities. 

Arts organisations should be looking ahead instead of burying their heads in the sand.  There will be less public subsidy around over the next few years.  It’s not just about this year’s largely static settlements from arts councils and local authorities.  During the next few years not only will the central funding be further reduced but it will bite harder.  Taken together with the reduction in private investment and the reduced spending power of audiences, this is a serious situation which should not be ignored.  Arts organisations should innovate.

Currently, most arts organisations are trying to sit out the recession by spending less and less on the programme in order to pay the staff and the electricity bills.  

Those of us not protected by subsidy – creative and other businesses – have to change in the process of  evolution.  The independent television sector is in a continuous process of consolidation – as our arts organisations should.   Businesses and business models are being deconstructed and reformed at an accelerating rate responding not only to the economic crisis but to the impact of the internet in the ways that we communicate, create and trade. The public sector itself is being ‘simplified’ by governments. But subsidised arts organisations are last in line.

I have been involved in several investigations of mergers with arts organisations – always at the behest of the funders.  In most cases, the arts companies were so resistant that the business case could not stack up.  The core argument against mergers was always around artistic integrity, uniqueness or, to put in another way, about ego.  Artistic Directors would take up adversarial positions and this would drive the arguments.  The Boards would support the Artistic Directors rather than talk, board to board, about what would be best for the community, efficiency etc.  And would always see themselves as having to defend their position against the funders.

There could be another round of this coming up as intermediary cultural agencies are faced with declining resources.

Those of us with knowledge and not fixed to a single organisation or ego can challenge arts organisations who are in similar businesses, providing similar services with shared audiences in a defined community, for example:

  • How can you each justify a single box office and marketing operation?
  • How can you justify the cost of the time it takes to coordinate with the other publicly funded  arts organisations, forums, agencies and other itermediaries when those resources could be used to create more art for more people if you were to consolidate?

While arts organisations are generally resistant to change they show great ability to remodel when the chips are down.  The chips are coming down fast chaps. Talk to your colleagues.  Think the unthinkable. Deconstruct. Regroup. Maybe Merge.  Take the initiative – don’t wait for the public agencies to do it for you.

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