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.