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reviving the 50p seat at Citizens Theatre 21012 - ©

In today’s highly codified and regulated subsidised arts sectors, all sorts of business and quasi-business behaviours are required. Strategies, plans, systems for delivering objectives and for measuring success are all extremely useful tools.  But in the days before market principles were applied to public expenditure, and before 25 years of increased public expenditure on the arts led not only to more investment in artists, arts activity and buildings but also to a proliferation of policy makers and monitors, there were far less requirements.  The weight of encouragement which public agencies provide to extol arts organisations to  ‘innovate’  , to improve or change their ‘ business models’ and to train their boards and leaders in being more ‘entrepreneurial’ and strategic, for example, could give the impression that arts leaders do not naturally do these things for themselves – left to their own devices.

But successful leaders in the arts have always taken risks and often demonstrated a razor-sharp instinct for business as an essential element of achieving ambitions to create great art and to attract audiences to enjoy and appreciate it.  Long before Glasgow had any cultural policy or arts development officers and when the Scottish Arts Council was a small organisation with a few officers, these was some serial innovation happening in the Gorbals under the direction of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald.  Not only did they transform the Theatre artistically but they attracted an audience of a size and demographic mix which would turn today’s  ‘audience development’ agency green with envy.  The reputation of the productions was the greatest factor in this and there were also all sorts of experiments including the radical ‘All Seats 50p’ policy.  I have gone back to the box office and financial records to assess the effect of this and the detailed results are in this article for the Scottish International Journal of Theatre and Screen. This shows how, at the same time as its cheap seat policy,  the Citz increased and diversified audiences at the same time as increasing its box office income while also attracting additional subsidy and putting more money into the work.  It did this through some luck  and some clever tactics, not least an extremely commercial approach to its annual pantomime, for which the tickets were not 50p.  It was not all plain sailing, with the SAC at one point granting  the Citz 5% less than the other Scottish producing theatres on the ground that the Citz refused to increase its ticket prices. And subsequent innovations, like no advance booking, were less successful.

Havergal was a risk taker, refuse-to-take-no for an answer leader with a mission to produce and present great work for the audiences of Glasgow. The Citz directors did not use business plans or strategies to shape their innovation but rather an intuitive experimentation. The simple mantra for all innovation, whether artistic or business was, as Philip Prowse often said “Not to change in art is to die”. A ‘taught’ entrepreneur AKA a manager using established business tools and techniques, would not have considered a flat ‘low’ ticket price after what had been three years of growth in revenues and attendances. But for Havergal, there was no formal strategy, no management objectives, no annual review. “ I don’t think we knew what had happened. We just looked at the money we had for the year ahead”.

Havergal and Prowse did it to shatter the inherited mould of complicated ticketing and to see if that might attract more and different people. The experiment was successful not only in its contribution to attracting additional audiences but in achieving more income from public bodies. The Havergal regime led the way on innovation, income generation and audience development and the public funders followed. In today’s arts funding system which is heavy on policy, strategy, measurement and evaluation, could similar theatrical entrepreneurialism flourish?