Why we need to move on from counting only bums on seats – ACE’s Theatre Assessment

Curve Leicester

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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