21st century cultural institutions


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?


Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Temple of Apollo at Jupiter Artland

Much of the recent furore over Creative Scotland is about how it communicates with and engages with artists. Several meetings are to take place, some open events organised by individuals and more with the various umbrella organisations which represent particular sectors. The problem with umbrella agencies like Playwrights Studio and Federation of Scottish Theatres is that they are funded directly and indirectly by Creative Scotland. While they can advocate, and do so, their ability to do so is dependent on funding from Creative Scotland. They are all part of the subsidised arts society where control begins with the Scottish Government which appoints the board members of Creative Scotland. Creative Scotland then funds subsidised arts organisations most of which are run as charities.  Some of these subsidised organisations also pay memberships to umbrella organisations who are also funded by Creative Scotland.  Their independence is therefore limited.

Many leading and eminent artists are not bound up in the hegemony of the subsidised arts.  With  fingers on the pulse of the wider cultural community in Scotland, it is their leadership which has achieved a clear response from Creative Scotland. Artists must  be able to play a lead role in culture not only through dialogue with Creative Scotland and its board but outwith Creative Scotland providing a vital counterweight to the state subsidised system.

The idea of an artists academy for Scotland has been around for some time and the time is right for it to be established. This should not be an agency or an instrument of state. Its members should be eminent artists, the primary function of the academy to recognise artists as civic leaders, and the role to contribute to cultural and wider policy and provide leadership, a bit like, but not the same as, the Irish Aosdana.  It should not be involved in the administration of funding, this is the role of Creative Scotland. Above all, it must be independent. If the artists academy had existed in 2002, when the idea of Creative Scotland was first mentioned in the Quinquennial Review of Scottish Sreeen in 2002, or by Mike Watson in 2003 before the match was lit under the bonfire of the quangoes, it could have contributed ideas and opinions about ideology and policy.  It could have contributed to the Cultural Commission, whose one artist Craig Armstrong resigned when he discovered he was the only artist in a committee of administrators, and to the many changes of policy over the next five years.

As Makar, the redoubtable Liz Lochhead occupies the sole official position for a leading Scottish artist.  Establishing a national artists academy with a role in national cultural leadership could bring artists in from the cold and allow more balanced and considered setting of cultural policy. In addition, increased fiscal autonomy could be used to provide a time limited allowance for artists and creative workers to develop their work, either in tax incentives or a creative enterprise allowance. This would loosen the singular dependence on Creative Scotland and create a more balanced system for artistic and cultural leadership in Scotland.

This would provide a counterweight to Creative Scotland, whose board is charged with achieving CS objectives as approved by the Scottish Government and with ensuring that public money is used efficiently, effectively and delivers government outcomes.

Board members of Creative Scotland are appointed by Ministers and not remunerated, in contrast with Scottish Enterprise or NHS. Not only does this signal that culture is less important than enterprise but it precludes applications from those artists who must prioritise work which generates income.   There is an artist on the board, musician Gary West, and others who practice art in their spare time but in selecting a chair closely associated with Scotland’s financial services, Fiona Hyslop has prioritised financial stewardship. Alternative structures involving artists would signal government recognition of their importance and reduce the singular focus on what is just one part of the cultural landscape.

Bricks and Blocks from Steve Rhode's flickr photostream

There are some great boards governing arts organisations in the UK. Engaged, expert, connected to their communities, robust and committed, the directors do it for love and from a sense of civic responsibility.  Its certainly not for financial gain, as the members of boards of charities are in the main unpaid, and its rarely for recognition, with only the chairs of top (drawer) arts organisations regularly receiving honours.  But for all the successes, most of the discussion about governance in the arts world is critical.  Individual executives complain about lack of support and understanding from board members and the governance of subsidised arts organisations is a vexed area.  Much of this is due to the widespread adoption of a standard, bespoke model for arts governance , created several decades ago as mechanisms whereby organisations could comply with fiduciary and legal requirements, avoid corporation tax and receive arts council and other funding. 

But one size does not fit all.  All the focus on the weaknesses of the current system tends to ignore not only the examples where the present model is absolutely fit for purpose, but also diverse altnerative governance structures which exist in the arts.  Peers in the MMM Revolution programme coming together to discuss governance at Newcastle’s Live Theatre were variously involved in shareholding companies, or in Community Interest Companies as well as the standard model.  In an arts ecology where collaboration and distributed leadership have taken firm root and where new financing, practice, resources and community relationships are emerging, its time to take a closer look at governance.  In particular, its time to recognise that in a diverse ecology, there are several valid species of arts governance models which will best suit diverse artistic enterprises.

The test needs to be, what is the best governance structure and system in each case to support artistic and organisational mission and to be truly accountable to  beneficiaries?  The consideration of beneficiaries is key.  In a subsidised arts organisation receiving public money, the beneficiaries will include the  general public and  artists.  But can the current prevalent governance systems in the subsidised arts support effective accountability to the public and artists ?

There are many types of structures and  organisations in the arts,  from those with tight and clear links with government to those where there is little relationship with public funding agencies. At each end of the spectrum , there is relative clarity about accountability.  A national gallery or one of Scotland’s national performing companies, for example, is directly accountable to government with directions and targets to meet.  A small community arts organisation with a mixed economy, volunteers and strong community interaction, will be very visible in its community and focussed on delivering benefits for its public.  Its the large number of arts council and subsidised organisations in the middle where there is less clarity.

The standard model of a subsidised arts organisation in the UK looks something like this.  Constituted as  charity, the boards will typically include as directors  members of the public with skills and expertise in arts, community, management, marketing, fundraising, financial, legal and other specific skills. They may also include specific representatives of their local authority and of key user groups like amateur societies.  The governing documents for boards will enshrine both charitable objectives and powers as well as operating rules.  Boards will do their best to govern with care, dligence and skill, providing support and challenge for executives, hiring and firing, advocating, and balancing compliance and risk.

But unlike shareholding and membership organisations and charities, most arts organisations are governed by boards whose members do not directly or wholly represent shareholders or members. The board directors may be openly recruited but there can be a lack of clarity about accountability.  By law, most board directors are accountable only to themselves as the directors will be the only members of the company.  This lack of wider accountability  can serve to weaken their perceived legitimacy. While some boards regard their responsibilities as being to all stakeholders, others take a narrower view, often focussing on the highest profile twin forces of the executive leadership and the major investor – the arts council.

Questioning the current prevailing models of governance in the arts  is not confined to the UK. Diane Ragsdale, speaking at the MMM Revolution event, described some of the pitfalls endemic in the US model of governance of arts organisations (give, get or get off). One danger she observed was that US boards tend to focus on preserving the existing structures rather than focussing on achieving artistic mission – a focus which in itself might mean leaving behind existing structures, like a building.   Another pitfall she identified was the undue influence on artistic programmes exerted by board members who are major donors.

He who pays the piper always influences the tune.  In the UK, the piper is unlikely to be a major donor but more likely to be funders representing the public interest and /or state policy,  in particular the arts council and local authorities representing the public interest.    But while the private donor in the US and the local authority in the UK will often be directly represented on the board, stating their claim, their priorities and sometimes their taste, the arts council will not.  While some arts councils sometimes send observers to board meetings, the general policy is to leave governance to the board. Arts council board members or officers never serve as full board directors.  How much clearer it would be if, within an overriding commitment to act corporately to achieve the mission of the organisation,  the arts council had shares on the board representing its interest, along with other shareholders like local authorities, commercial operators, user groups and so on.

Governance structures which include arts councils as shareholders?   Creative Community Companies? Operating without a board at all?  Its time to unblock the one size fits all model and legitmise alternatives more fit for purpose.

Bust of Jimmy Reid, trade union activist and writer: by Kenny Hunter
at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery: ©Kenny Hunter

Today’s strike action by public servants has closed large parts of the nation’s cultural institutions and local authority services.  Libraries are closed and the fabulous new Scottish National Portrait Gallery has had to disconnect its first day of opening to the public with St Andrews Day in a sad case of poetic injustice.  Libraries and museums are bound in to public services, carrying the heavy weight of civic responsibility in conserving collections  held in trust for the nation or in providing education and information. These civic cultural facilities which we support through our taxes are operated by public sector workers and today those workers are on strike over changes to their pensions.

The arts, on the other hand, are relatively unfettered by civic burdens. Free to take risks, make money and entertain as well as educate, stimulate and inspire, arts facilities are largely run by people without a pension. Most people who work in the arts do not enjoy the benefits of pensions and other terms and conditions associated with the public sector.  Most people who work in the arts are self-employed artists, actors, stage managers, dancers, writers and illustrators.  The majority of those who are able to earn a full-time living in the arts are the support staff, the managers, arts centre directors, box office staff and technicians and few enjoy the protected conditions of the public sector.

So today, some arts centres are flexing their entrepreneurial muscles and imaginatively engaging with their communities. Horsecross Arts in Perth are running music and dance workshops for children looking to get involved in the arts since their schools are closed. And for most, from the Corby Cube to the Brunton Theatre Musselburgh,  its business as usual even if they are run by a local authority.

A few municipal arts facilities are closed because of strike action like the Pontardawe Arts Centre,  and The Princess Royal Theatre.  But there are other closures  in arts centres where the local authority has put the arts out to trusts to operate, like Glasgow Life. Most local authorities establishing cultural trusts do so mostly to avoid paying VAT and Non Domestic Rates.  But in TUPEing staff over to the new trust, the old local authority terms and conditions apply and sometimes stick.  So the Tramway, one of the most innovative and risk taking contemporary arts centres in Europe which is part of Glasgow Life has had to close today and cancel a talk by artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar.  The talk, rather ironically is about the exhibition Jean Genet’s Walls, Speaking of Revolt, Media and Beauty.  But there will be no Speaking of Revolt today as workers at the Tramway strike to protest about pension changes.

Purple balloons at the Royal Albert Hall

The privileges and responsibilities of artistic directors of theatres and arts venues traditionally range wide, from determining artistic policy and creative content to injecting artistic taste to aspects of business and operations. Many a director has chosen the precise shade of colour to paint the foyer or the toilets, in the belief that a venue’s artistic identity must be controlled tightly and within a finely tuned sensibility, like a boutique hotel or chef-led restaurant.  This artisitically -driven business model, where putting on the right work in the right way with the right colour of paint in the foyer is deemed to drive the overall success of the operation, attracting audiences and cash.  Amongst the greatest proponents of this model were the triumvirate at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow in the 1970s, where a high style attracted not only increased audiences but increased public investments and where Philip Prowse chose the precise shade of red in the foyer.

But does having such a distinct personality benefit today’s performing arts venues?

The Auditoriums Meet Conference in Dublin last week convened the leaders and designers of some of the world’s latest landmark performance auditoria. Some were brand new venues like the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin and the Curve in Leicester, both created during times of economic buoyancy and both of which have had to work had to carve out a place in the market. And then there were the Scandinavians, dedicated to the pursuit of acoustic and environmental quality regardless, it seems, of cost or time, like  the world’s most expensive concert hall, the Koncerthuset  in Copenhagen and its Norwegian neighbour the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand.

But more of the venues were transformations, not only of bricks and mortar, but also a transformation of the historic top down relationship with the audience.   Whereas 20th century venues put on work, marketed it to the audiences and then, when they came, sold them a drink, 21st century venues convene with their communities, audiences, affiliates and commercial partners and together create experiences.

Like Cinderella’s glittering carriage magicked from a pumpkin, Dublin’s 02  is an astonishing reinvention of the 9000 seat concert venue which not only accommodates with style and comfort audiences and artists for the central performance but also pays as much attention to other parts of the experience. Mike Adamson O2’s CEO was obsessive about getting the right lighting to create ambience in the various zones of the O2, from the bars where pints can be pulled in 20 seconds, to the VIP Audi club   and Premium,.  And Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, transformed from the Hummingbird Centre in the wake of an explosion of new venues, to become a multicultural arts centre with cup holders built into the seats. The overall experience is serviced through the $20 themed drink and dinner offer and a recognition that audiences will be live streaming, taking photos, as well as checking into Foursquare and Facebook during the performance.

This attention to all parts of the customer experience in attending an event is critical to the success of performance auditoria in the 21st century.  The dimensions of the ‘experience’ includes not only the real but the virtual, and not only during the concert but before and after, and not only the individual experience but the experience in relation to others, before, during after and in the hall, the club,  the bar, the car park and on facebook, foursquare and gowalla .

Deeper affiliations and corporate partnerships create not only a greater use of lighting, like O2 blue, but genuinely collaborative partnerships of mutual benefit. Naming rights are the flavour of the decade, with the Grand Canal about to become the Bord Gáis Theatre, the Cloudy Bay bar in the Albert Hall as the chillout bar of SW7 and the O2 and Sony Centre demonstrating that its easy to switch from one name to another.

The methods and tools for engaging with audiences have similarly been turned upside down. The Smirnoff Night Exhange  segments its audiences simply – Are you a Paparazzi or a Poser?  Fanshake uses social media to generate masses of’fans’ in short spaces of time.

Copenhagen Living Lab  goes much deeper, applying an anthropological model to the live experience, analysing individual archetypes and their behaviours with reference to the work on liminality of Van Gennep and then Turner. These anthropologists described the very specific behaviours of communities involved in  ‘liminoid’ experiences, a term used to refer to the collective reflexion and almost transcendental  experience of the audience at  the live performance. Copenhagen Living Lab is concerned less with the philosophy but more with what an adoption of the defined behaviours can do for sales. The audience is involved in four phases: preparation, separation (from ordinary social life);  margin or limen (meaning threshold), when subjects of ritual fall into a limbo between their past and present modes of daily existence; and  re-aggregation when they are ritually returned to secular or mundane life.

While old school arts marketing stops when the ticket is sold, new audience engagement recognises and embraces the power of individual audience members, considers their motivations – posers or paparazzi, social or culture vulture – and upsells and encourages referalls at all stages in the ritual of performance.

A 21st century engagement with the audience generates fans and masses of sale. Its all a long way from painting the front of house areas.


Brownie Guide Artist Badge 1960 - inspired by Brown Owl

As the Big Society supercedes the Welfare State as the defining political and socio-economic concept of our times, there will be radical changes in cultural policy and state support for the arts.  The mantra of excellence for all will be qualified: Excellence for all in the traditional art forms but only in those cases where local authorities choose to subsidise or where private individuals patronise the arts.  Support for the delivery of artistic experiences -helping to create the conditions for the meeting of, and transactions between, audiences and artists – will change dramatically. This zone used to be occupied by impressarios, patrons, art dealers, teachers, volunteers and Brown Owls and the like but now is held by an arts administration industry which has growed like topsy over the last thirty years  In a Big Society, there will be less benefits and services provided by a public sector populated by employees living in a protective state bubble.  That bubble has burst and the Arts Council  is having to make decisions fast as to how best to work with severely reduced funding at the same time as dealing with government directions which clearly demonstrate how short the arm of an arms length body really is. 

The Arts Council has prioritised its regularly funded organisations (RFOs) in the short term and signalled its intention to prioritise those working in creation and production which must be right.  While ACE has already cut Arts and Business and CCE as being two very large clients who are intermediary agencies, it currently core funds several other agencies involved in development of audiences, arts community support and the like.

Will the future see the stripping out of the multiple layers of the subsidised arts industry?  A blank page approach would allow ACE and others to be very focussed and efficient in procuring the delivery of development and other services it deemed to be strategically essential on a time limited basis.  Following the boards well-trodden by almost every other industry, the Arts Council should tender for services, encouraging entrepreneurs, independents, social enterprise companies and the like to provide innovative approaches to delivering these projects and programmes.

Or are the Arts Council and others caught up in a self-perpetuating system which looks after its own? Many of the development agencies were set up by the Arts Council and are run by ex-arts council or local authority employees who have developed their skills inside the system and enjoy terms and conditions reserved for the public sector. There are people and organisations out there with more arts experience, entrepreneurial skills, innovative ideas and a more flexible approach to remuneration. Some of these are found in existing front-line arts organisations – using the term to describe organisations working directly with artists rather than Ed Vaizey’s definition which equates to RFOs.  And there is also a new generation of creative entrepreneurs who havent’t been able to make a difference because of the log jam in the existing organisations.  There is a good chance that ACE could get a better deal for the sector as a whole by tendering for fixed term services.

But the default position is to keep it in the family.  Jeremy Hunt in his letter to ACE’s Chair, Dame Liz Forgan, directs ACE to develop the Cultural Leadership Programme into a ‘broader organisational development resource for culture and the creative industries’.  In turn ACE states that it will be asking its funded organisations to take on more responsibility for furthering its strategic goals, particularly in the areas of touring and audience development. The implication is that the existing funded organisations should be supported to change, rather than the right people or companies should be contracted to deliver the required services.

ACE is right to prioritise funding which will directly support art and artists and will need to ensure that the core arts ecology is sustained. It must use the current crisis to be radical in its approach to service delivery and open the doors to innovation and new blood and not close ranks.

Oor Willie: An inward looking view of Scottish culture?

Scottish arts unions and industry bodies give various reasons for not getting involved in the UK I value the arts campaign, quoted in the Sunday Herald. Some because of circumstances and others because they dont think its worth it.   Certainly its essential that there is a Scotland campaign as we approach our own cuts in public expenditure and the May elections for the Scottish Parliament.  The arts and culture are devolved matters and the main focus of any campaign to highlight the value of the arts should be fought on Scottish soil.  But to ignore the UK context would be foolish.

1. The arts  – artists, arts organisations and arts participants – operate within a broader cultural and creative economy

  • A playwright or actor working now in a Scottish theatre was yesterday working in a film made in London or LA and tomorrow writing a television play.  A textile designer will apply her designs to virtual and physical artefacts sold throughout the world.  Our artists don’t work within an economy defined by Scotland’s boundaries or single-art form formats.  We need the best conditions for our artists throughout the UK. These conditions are not simply those enabled by public subsidy, either.  It equally important that fiscal policy is used to create favourable tax controls and breaks.

2. Key parts of the cultural and creative economy are governed, controlled and funded with powers reserved to Westminster.       These include:

Fiscal powers

  • Westminster reserves the power to tax and provide tax breaks.  For the arts, culture and creative industries these powers currently do or in future could signicantly improve conditions through:
  • tax breaks for the film and video games industries
  • tax incentives for individual and corporate patronage and philanthropy
  • tax breaks for individual artists


  • Broadcasting is a reserved power but remains the most  influential and pervasive system of communicating culture 

International Affairs through the Foreign and Conmmonwealth Office

  • the FCO funds the British Council, which takes responsibility for promoting Scotland’s arts, culture and creative industries throughout the world

3. Scottish MSPs and MPs talk, share ideas and policy. 

  • The current balance of political power, where we have a minority SNP administration in Scotland and the Coalition in Westminster could change in May. It is not outside the realms of possibility that we could see Labour-led governments in Holyrood and Westminster this decade.  Why would we want to give MPs the idea that Scotland’s arts bodies aren’t interested in the arts in a UK context?

We do need a coordinated approach in Scotland.  This should involve not only arts industry bodies and unions, but colleagues in the games industry, the private and voluntary sector, museums and heritage.  Collective cultural leadership could deliver powerful advocacy to support Scotland’s arts, culture and creative industries.  But this needs to happen not only within Scotland, but also in the UK and in Europe.