Monthly Archives: January 2010

Daniel Liebeskind's Grand Canal Theatre: from Pallotron's Flickr photostream

From different angles, two new theatres in Dublin and Dallas are opening up  new possibilities for artistic and commercial theatrical success.  After three centuries of boxed theatre, from  chocolate boxes to black boxes,  and a focus on preservation and conservation, its time to lift the lid for exploration and collaboration.

In Dublin, the opening in March of Daniel Liebeskind’s iconic Grand Canal Theatre will open up a much wider set of programming possibilities for the city and may begin to establish a more sustainable ecology.  The Grand Canal Theatre, which opens in Dublin’s Docklands in March is part of the major Dublin Docklands development  which you can get to by crossing the Liffey over the latest in the great artist bridges  the Samuel Becket bridge. With 2100 seats, the theatre is state of the art technically and architecturally, taking all the know-how of theatre engineers, acousticians and designers to create a great theatre space.   The possibilities it opens up are enormous, not only in programming international dance, opera, musicals and theatre but also by creating the space for development of a greater commercial sector in Ireland.   The theatre community is suffering from the prospect of further cuts in public expenditure.  But the skills and talents of theatre companies and individual producers have produced commercial success on Broadway and elsewhere and they will have their eye on the potential of this new space.

In Dallas, Joshua-Prince Ramus has turned the whole process of theatre architecture on its head,  The fly-tower in the new Wyly Theatre is a tower which flies,  with not only the roof raising but the walls too, literally opening up the theatre.  The potential for artistic invention and community collaboration is enormous and blows away the conventions of the last century, putting the artistic inventor in the lead with the architecture following. As Ramus says, “you can watch Becket against the Dallas skyline”.

Both of these developments were enabled by corporate philanthropy and interventions.  In Dublin,  the developer Harry Crosbie and the Docklands Corporation and in Dallas AT& T and the Wylys created an environment where such risks could be taken.

Here in the UK Leicester’s Curve may be our last example of innovatory theatre architecture for some time.  Now we are boxed in. Our theatres are all built and refurbished with public money in a climate which has become increasingly resistant to risk of any sort.  The Arts Lottery funded some great new buildings and some refurbishments but often on the basis on minimising risk, ensuring that every pound of public expenditure would lever the ‘best value’ return.   

 For those buildings not refurbished during the Lottery largesse there are residual problems.  The Kings in Edinburgh presents world class theatre particularly during the Edinburgh Festival, in a building which is woeful in its conditions.  The City Council will not fund a major refurbishment so the theatre will need to struggle on.

 As we batten down the hatches, we need  to keep an eye on possibilities for opening up theatres and not being a slave to the old buildings.  Some of our chocolate box theatres, like Frank Matcham’s must be preserved as our national heritage and ideally animated as local live performance spaces.   But we need to move on and free theatre from the restrictions of old buildings. And look for ways to raise the roof and open the walls.

Matthew Paris’ map of Great Britain. St Albans, c.1250 British Library Cotton MS Claudius, f.12v Copyright © The British Library Board

At the State of the Arts Conference last week, a last minute switch led me to being part of the panel discussing Has Britain Got Any Talent for Talent? instead of a session on the public and the arts. Thinking about it, I realised that I was being asked to consider two concepts which were largely fuzzy.  One was the notion of ‘talent’ itself, given its current diverse use to mean anything to young performers, staff in a corporate organisation, contestants in a talent show and to anyone who works in the screen industries;  and as applied to the individual gift each of us has in life. And its overuse in the public sector applied to skills and employment as in Creative Britain: new Talents for the New Economy.  Which brings me to the other fuzzy concept, that of ‘Britain’.  ‘Britain’ is properly neither the UK, which is Great Britain and Northern Ireland, nor Great Britain, which is England Wales and Scotland, not the British Isles which includes the whole of Ireland.

Britain includes nations where cultural policy is devolved and, in Scotland, so are many other powers including education, but neither fiscal policy nor tax raising powers.  So, within the broad canvas of Britain and Talent, some areas are less British and more Scottish.  The importance of supporting, celebrating and rewarding artistic talent as an expression of cultural identity is less and less of a British issue and more of a national one for the devolved nations, particularly in Scotland.

Many Scottish creatives and artists now identify as Scottish and /or Scottish British as opposed to British. They compete, exhibit, perform and trade on international platforms and the best are awarded British and international prizes, like Richard Wright and Carol Ann Duffy.

The symbiotic relationship between artists and cultural identity is enshrined in many international policies and the recognition and support of a nation’s artistic and creative talent has a higher value to small and emergent nations.

And, for those artists who may not be commercially successful – the poet, the painter – the greatest recognition can come from the state.

In 1969 Charles Haughey, the then Taisoch of Ireland, closely advised by the writer Antony Cronin, made changes to state policy which signalled to the world the importance of artists to the independent state of Ireland, through the introduction of three things:

1 the exemption from income tax from creative content and products – paintings, composition, books, etc .This was later capped and is now under threat again as Ireland fights severe economic crisis.

2. tax incentives for investors in the Irish film industry, in a move which has had long term economic impact

3. the establishment of Aosdana, the academy of recognised artists, where being a member confers recognition and reward

Not only have these measures contributed towards Ireland’s international artistic success and reputation but they have engendered a respect for artists as leaders. In the bloody fighting in Ireland over the funds in a decimated public purse, the arts sector has fought and won through a brilliant campaign. Using  hard evidence about the sector’s economic contribution of €11.8 billion or 7.6% of GDP was one weapon which saved the Film Board, Culture Ireland and 94 per cent of the arts budget.  Another was the impassioned influence of artists who campaigned publicly or who gave evidence to political committees, including Sebastian Barry, Joseph O’Connor, Colm McCann, Colm Tobain to Brendan Gleeson, given prime place in the Dail and the media as respected leaders, confident, assured and celebrated.

While other countries have made some tax concessions for artists, no other country has made such a major statement about the importance of artistic talent to its cultural identity.

For Scotland, recognising, celebrating and supporting its artistic talent is a key component of cultural policy, a devolved power. As a small country, recognising the talent may be relatively easy.  But the powers to support that Scottish talent is limited by  Westminster.  The current minority SNP administration is committed in principle to tax exemptions for artists but does not have the fiscal autonomy to do this.   Our world leading talent for interactive games in Dundee has watched its competitive position weaken as France, Canada and now Ireland offer tax incentives.

The Scottish Government is bringing forward the Referendum Bill to support greater devolution of such matters. Fiona Hyslop, the Culture Minister, said yesterday

“Artists and creators often hold up a mirror to society, reflecting back the experience of belonging; nowhere more so than in Scotland, where our distinctive cultural life is known the world over.

“I firmly believe that a Scotland with more control over its own affairs – a Scotland more confident in itself – would see fresh creativity shine through as a result. In turn, a more confident nation leads to an even more creative one – a virtuous circle of increasing confidence and creativity.

“There is a hard edge to this, of course, as Scotland trades on the international recognition of its culture and heritage. It is a major attraction for visitors and showcases our country as a diverse and exciting place to live and work; so increased confidence and creativity can only be good for business.

Artists in Scotland have an important role to play in the success of the nation as well as in the UK – sorry – Britain,  and internationally.  And political recognition with visible backing is essential.

Yesterday’s inaugural State of The Arts Conference was framed by curtain-raiser and curtain-closer performances from the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw and the Conservative Shadow Jeremy Hunt.Both men have a high level of fluency in the lingo of culture with all its complexities and nuances.  Both demonstrate a commitment, passion and understanding of  the arts’ intrinsic value as well as their crucial value to the creative economy.  Both are fully-signed up to the essential need to subsidise the arts to achieve excellence and engagement.

And both are imagining the future in the context of the impact of the recession and reduced public expenditure overall. This will inevitably mean less funding for the arts whether routed through the Lottery, annual expenditure through DCMS or through arts funding through local authorities, or from private investment.

How different will the manifestos be? That will largely depend on the party politics and election strategy.  The time honoured themes of interest to the arts community are funding and policy.

Jeremy Hunt promised that, under his leadership in a conservative government,there would be a ‘golden age for the arts’. He laid out commitments yesterday to return lottery funds to the arts and to create a more philanthropic culture for private investment. He set out targets to reduce administrative costs in ACE and to encourage the building up of endowments in cultural institutions. He also indicated that he would look to take a firmer hold of cultural policy were he to be in charge at DCMS and to stop what he called ‘sub-contracting of policy’ to bodies such as Ofcom and ACE.

But manifestos and Culture Secretaries are not the only indicators of a political party’s commitment to the arts.  The arts community certainly took note of Shadow Chancellor George Osborne’s speech at the Tate in November last year when he pledged support for culture not just for its economic impacts, but because “art matters for art’s sake”.

The arts community is also influenced by the likely performance of the Culture Secretary both as an effective Champion for Culture within government and as a leader who can deliver sustained improvement – and this means being in the job long enough.  As Hunt and Bradshaw have developed a deeper and broader understanding of the arts and relationships with its many key players, they understand the need to stay in the Culture Chair for a decent length of time. Hunt pledged his avowed commitment to retain the role of Culture Secretary and that of Ed Vaizey as Arts Minister, should they get in. As Bradshaw apologised for the fact that there has been a bit too much change before him, he likewise expressed his desire stay in the job for some time.  None of them can guarantee this of course but its to be hoped that we avoid the musical chairs which so often unseat good ministers.

In Scotland, where we have had 9 culture ministers in 10 years, we should take note.

The row over the future of Aberdeen’s Union Terrace gardens intensified today with the launch of the public consultation over City Square from Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (ACSEF).

On the surface, it looks like leaders in Aberdeen are consulting the public about a vision for regeneration of the city which could combine contemporary art and culture, green space, markets and community and social celebration.  The plans to create a civic square which sympathetically integrates arts and culture as well as the natural beauty and heritage of the site sounds, in the same superficial way, like a good idea.

Respondents to the public survey on the plans to create a civic square in or on Aberdeen’s Union Gardens today are asked to rate their desire for public art, a contemporary arts centre and performing arts.

But ACSEF’s plans will at worst scupper completely the firmly developed and largely funded plans of Peacock Arts to create a contemporary arts centre. Peacock and masses of supporters have campaigned against ACSEF’s development (with 4400 signatures to the petition and  a Facebook Group), as have a third group protesting against the loss of the green heritage.  Peacock Arts’ frustrations are exacerbated by an apparent lack of collaboration between ACSEF and Peacock.

In masterplanning terms, a development on Aberdeen’s Union Gardens could create a new heart to the city and could create a cultural quarter linking His Majesty’s Theatre to the Music Hall through the proposed city square, containing a contemporary arts facility. This could be an economic, social and cultural winner which is likely to need some compromise all round.

Education, Damnation and Salvation are the three imposing granite civic buildings – the Central Library, St Mark’s Church and His Majesty’s Theatre on Rosemount Viaduct which border the gardens.

So surely its time to bring some Arbitration, Conciliation and Negotiation to the process.

You can take a horse to water....from Therapist's Flickr photo stream

Today’s reports on the results of the survey on the future governance arrangements for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society show that the the majority of the 2000 or so respondents want fundamental change.  And that change is not rocket science.  Its more simply a recognition that the Fringe would benefit from complying with standard good practice in its governance and in particular in making sure that the right skills are on the board.

The fact that the Fringe Society had to wait for a crisis before undertaking a review of governance is symptomatic of a kind of inertia in the subsidised arts sector, which tends to wait for management and governance arrangements to be broken before they are fixed.   The trouble is, that while there is lots of good advice available to the boards of charities, the boards of voluntary organisations and arts boards, many chose not to take the advice.   Good practice guides overwhelmingly recommend:

  • limited terms of service for all board members, usually 2 terms of 3 years or maximum 4 years
  • a diversity of board members based on skills

Good guidance is provided by the Scottish Arts Council in its publication, Care Diligence and Skill

If the constitution does not provide for retirement of board members after a maximum period of six years, consideration should be given to altering this or to introducing a standing order which has this effect.If members of organisations fail to apply these tests when electing or re-electing new board members, they have only themselves to blame if the organisation begins to falter,fail or be less vital.

You can take a horse to water but you cant make it drink.

Public bodies are governed by clear regulations including a restriction on the length of service; private companies are accountable to their shareholders which keeps the paid executive board members on their toes and charities generally are accountable to all their members.  But arts boards are bespoke organisations which can chose to maintain ancient constitutions and forms which keep them as closed shops or ruled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy.  Many started in different times, as membership  clubs or artists cooperatives or, like the Fringe, as membership societies, when these structures made sense.  But whilst many arts organisations have reformed their constitutions, some have hung to the comfort of the old and so some board members and Chairs, who may be excellent, assume it best to stay in the job rather than allow refreshment and renewal.

A more fundamental issue arising from the Fringe consultation is the question of who really constitutes the community of ownership of the Fringe . The Festival Fringe Society has currently a cap of  100 members under its current constitution, drawn up in 1969.  One proposal is to allow membership to be open to everyone.  The key will be to ensure that the Fringe really is accountable to its community, a challenge that besets all arts organisations where subsidy is involved.   That will mean more than a change to the length of service of board members, and could even mean a more radical reform of the corporate structure.  A Community Interest Company might be more fit for purpose, offering a more transparent and accountable structure which also supports entrepreneurship.