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subsided arts

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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?

There was a diversity of creative business leaders at last week’s C&binet Forum.  As well as global industry leaders from Google, Spotify, EMI, Vivendi and many other major media leaders, publishers, content providers and distributors, there was a rich smattering of creative entrepreneurs (mostly not wealthy either because they work in community creative enterprises, or simply because they are emergent).  So both the formal sessions and informal chats were driven by an energy and passion around change and improvement to maximise the impact of UK creativity.

The ‘arts’ did not emerge much during the formal discussions, perhaps due to the domination of the copyright agenda. Twice they were mentioned, once by the CEO of  DACS and once by Colin Tweedy of Arts and Business who was given short shift by the panel talking about investment, who were interested in profit not patronage.  In their mind, music , publishing and games fell clearly under the remit of the creative economy, but subsidised arts did not.

This division is one which some of our artists and subsidised arts organisations feel comfortable.  It provides  some necessary protection and a space for the state to encourage the vital support of individual artists and arts activity which cannot and should not be commercial.  The metrics of the arts are not only (if at all) commercial but are educational, social and cultural, promoting well being, cultural identity, individual growth and community cohesion – as well as , most importantly, provoking ideas, thoughts and revelations.

But not to engage in the fast moving change  around the way we communicate and interact in the digital age  could be a catastrophic mistake which threatens some subsidised arts organisations with irrelevance and possible extinction.

And its not about using Twitter as a marketing tool.

The key areas are around interacting with audiences and around 21st century business models.

In terms of interaction, the massive increase in people interacting through games must surely given some ideas to arts organisations – especially those involved in drama and music – some scope to review current products and seek new collaborative methods of creating work.

And as for 21st century business models   – its all about Freemium and upselling.

The leaders of some arts organisations engage in the challenge and break through the aspic of subsidy.  Watershed, for example, in its Ished project is about to embark on creating theatre with participants through mobile technology. Cornerhouse through the Art of With is at least asking the questions about collaboration with users in curation and programming.  But the examples are few and far between.  In the mainstream of subsidised arts, the production and presentation of work is entirely led by the visions and drives of the artists at the top, and the machinery around that is concerned with realising the artistic ambition and attracting an audience for it.

So does it matter? Maybe subsidised theatres and arts centres are simply the organised versions of individual artists who create work for arts sake and damn the audience?

A colleague , faced with the evidence which demonstrated the type of work which would attract larger and more diverse audiences, and noting the artistic director’s disdain, described the ‘salon  theatre’ with which that organisation was engaged.

Personally, I think that is a great pity.  I, like many, discovered the arts with a little help from the library, my dad’s work night out to the (variety) theatre, and school trips.  A typical child of the ‘C2DE ‘ household with no books, art or music, the arts unfolded as I began my journey of discovery.

Subsidised arts organisations should encourage the discovery of today’s youngsters and engage with their equivalent of libraries and works socials – social networking and gaming as well as intense engagement in education.  Or else adopt the the model of supply-led theatre and arts, the ‘salon’ and make the case for investment for other reasons – the arts are, after all, good for your health, well-being, community cohesion and sense of self.

If that is the case, individual arts organisations will need to have their evidence ready.  We have less and less public expenditure available.  And government, particularly if the Conservatives win the next election, get it about business models.  Barnet Council’s freemium model could, if extended, mean that the arts and culture are an additional extra for tax payers.  And will they pay for salon theatre?