Subsidised theatres asserting their value – what’s the evidence?

In these times of financial crisis, arts funders cry out for theatre companies to be more innovative and to find new business models.  Implicit in these challenges is the belief that theatre companies are at best conservative and risk-averse or at worst hopeless at business and organisation. While this is sometimes the case, most theatres and arts organisations are entrepreneurial, innovative and smart.  Its just that they havent established their value and this is often because of the lack of evidence.

NESTA has published Culture of Innovation, a report into how the National Theatre and the Tate innovate.

The headlines have been grabbed by the phenomenal success of NT Live, the livestreaming of NT productions which not only have seen the NT extend the size and social breadth of its audiences but have also shown that this platform has found audiences to be more emotionally engaged than those at the theatre – it breaks through the fourth wall.

But these headlines can obscure other key messages about theatre from the report:

1. theatres can be intrinsically innovative because they take risks with new plays

2. theatres can be as smart at business as other commercial outfits – managing programming, ticket yield etc

I guess many of us in the theatre knew that.  But the fact that funders dont know this stems in part from a lack of evidence of the value of the work that theatres do. NESTA argues for taking a research-led approach:

We hope to have demonstrated through this study the benefits of that experimentation being research-led. That involves: upfront identification of clear research questions;application of rigorous research methodologies(quantitative as well as qualitative); and analysis of revealed (audience behaviour)as well as stated (surveyed) preferences.Using such methodologies, research studies can generate robust evidence to inform policymaking within institutions, amongst cultural funding agencies and in government 

This makes absolute sense and a welcome relief from the usual way in which the case is made for the arts, which draws implications from events and programmes after they have happened. Instead of a research led approach, evidence on the value of the arts is often rhetorical.

An example is the latest report from Demos which describes how the RSC has used its own principles of ‘ensemble’ to reform to its own organisation, implying an added value from its instrinsic artisticness. At 180 pages, it tells the story of this theatre’s organisational change process through documentation and observation. Its hard to see how this report benefits anyone other than the internal audiences at the RSC, like many other reports before it.

Surely its time to get more focussed about where to put research funding. Its time to ditch the observerational rhetoric and move to  research-led experimentation to add value.

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