Subsidising every ticket maintains a false economy

from Maise NYC's flickr photostream

The economy of arts organisations in the UK is based on a trinity of finance streams: investment from the public purse, philanthropy and sponsorship from private indviduals and income earned from sales and trading.   The current excellent campaigns from the cultural sector are firmly focussed on persuading the coalition government to maintain the first and enable the second of these.  Public investment in the arts should be ringfenced in the October spending review, many maintain.  And the government should deploy a suite of fiscal tools and incentives to encourage greater arts philanthropy.  But what about the third element, income generation?    

As debates about arts funding have become more mainstream, the arguments are becoming sharper.  What started as blunt battle lines, those for arts funding versus those against, the debates around kitchen tables as well as in the media are exposing the specific issues where there is most dissent.  The arguments that the arts are important to our well being and that funding  is essential to support artists to develop and to drive the creative economy have been made well.  Where many take issue is in how the funding is used, as well as how much at these times of public austerity.     

There is a feeling, increasingly expressed, that public expenditure is being used to fund art where other private benefactors could pay.  A recent poll found that two thirds of people agree with the government’s stance that more private funding should be used to fund the arts and a fifth of the 2,022 British adults questioned said visual arts should not be given any government funding according  to the BBC.

Another argument is gaining traction, that the current system of arts funding is unfairly weighted towards those people who could afford to pay.  And there is some evidence that this is true. Our arts funding system still has one foot firmly planted in the days of free school milk and in the days when dental treatment was free to all.  Subsidy is applied to all audiences, whether they want it or need it or not. The price of tickets for performances at subsidised theatre  is connected neither to the cost of creating the work nor to the ability to pay of some audiences.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse is an example of a very good  and successful regional theatre, supported by the public purse to the tune of £2.5m each year to produce and present a high quality programme of theatre, education activity and tours.  It sells around 170,000 tickets in Leeds each year, from £12 to £30 and it takes another £2.5m at the box office. Using a blunt calculation, each seat is subsidised on average at £15.   The difference in price between a full price ticket and a concessionary ticket – for unwaged, over 65s, students, under 18s etc in most theatres is marginal – no more than 20%. Every ticket is state subsidised, in a system where subsidy is used to protect punters from paying the full cost.

 Many performances venues have a much higher subsidy per seat than WYP but all commonly subsidise every attendance, creating a false economy. But should they? How many members of the audience would be happy, willing and able to pay more and to recognise the value and cost of putting on the production?  And if they did pay more, how low could the price be for those who really can’t afford to pay, or have had no experience and hence unable to judge?  If public investment is to be viewed as an essential public service,  arts attendances could be free for the needy and the under 18s and those adults with the wherewithall could pay full price.  Of course, simply doubling ticket prices would not be the most sensitive way to achieve this.   But as the welfare state becomes more of a distant memory and its open season on all universal benefits, it seems sensible to look at ways to allow individuals to make a greater contribution to the costs of their local venue. 

Subsidising all theatre tickets means that public taxes are more likely to be used to subsidise the arts experiences of higher earners than those of lower earners.  In its major research study, Taking Part in the Arts, the Arts Council found a significant demographic gulf in regular arts attenders.  Put simply, the more income one earns, the more likely one is to participate. 68% of people in the higher groups attend and 47% of the lower groups.  The current practice of maintaining a false ceiling on the top ticket prices means that disproportionate subsidy is applied to those who are least in need.  None of this would matter if there was enough money to go round and if our current system was successful in broadening access.

We need to ensure that we can invest in and support research, development, the artist and put public money where there is no other investment possible.  And that could mean an end to subsidising EVERY ticket.

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