Last night I went to the Maddermarket Theatre to see The Star-Spangled Girl by Neil Simon. It was, in short, a supremely entertaining show.
Last night I went to the Maddermarket Theatre to see The Star-Spangled Girl by Neil Simon. It was, in short, a supremely entertaining show.
A shared aesthetic, shared motives, collaboration and artistic freedom. Each of these things is seen as important to the work of an ensemble. For an ensemble to function properly, it is important to find common ground in each of these areas. Having a group of individuals working closely together, at a high level of intensity, for an extended period of time is what separates the ensemble way of working from the more ‘traditional’ producing theatre company structure. It has long been established that consistency of members is vital to what makes ensemble movements successful – this allows the group to explore each other, and themselves, over long periods of time, and to a greater degree of depth. It is a challenge, to work so closely with others for such extended, intense periods of time. Within the folds of a regular cast of performers, this challenge to work closely is only for a relatively short period. But as Peter Brook says about the work of Grotowski, working within a dedicated ensemble presents a challenge “not for a fortnight, not for once in a lifetime. Daily”. This collaboration and exploration of each ensemble member can lead to discovery of new skills and unknown talents, as well as fostering of a deeper understanding of what is important to create truly new and exciting work.
The concept of collaborative ensemble work is not new, but it has changed and developed over time, from the early companies in the time of Shakespeare, through to modern groups such as Complicité and Cheek by Jowl. As with every other area of human development, there have been changes and developments as new ideas and potential have been realised, and this evolution will continue to develop through the development of current and new ensemble practices.
When looking at how ensembles are shaped by their antecedents the clearest place to begin is in their approach and methods. How often are terms such as “Brechtian” used to describe a particular style, whether its use is accurate or not? This is due to the impact had by the likes of the Berliner Ensemble on the theatrical vocabulary of our times. Littlewood talks about collaboration and not the “supremacy” of one individual over the direction of the group, but is that truly what happened during her career, and are we more familiar with the work of Joan Littlewood, or of Theatre Workshop?
Ensembles, perhaps more so than other forms of theatre or live entertainment, are built on an ideal of collaboration between equal members of a group. An ensemble can be described as is “one body with many heads – but many heads who work in the same direction”, and this deep understanding and unity within the group will be discussed later. The issue here, though, is the practicalities of creating quality work for an audience, to a deadline, while avoiding becoming “the most tiresome, awkward…forever-compromise, never-right” situation that many such as Olivier feared ensemble work could become.
That is the main challenge to Littlewood’s statement of collaboration. While she has admitted that she believes there ought not to be one ‘supreme’ individual above others in the creative process, did she herself, however unintentionally, take on that higher authority during her work? During her time with Theatre Workshop in Stratford, she collaborated with Ewan MacColl and Gerry Raffles, but much of the work that the company produced is regarded as being her work – for example, look at the involvement she had in taking the work of Brendan Behan and making it possible to be staged. That is not to say that she deliberately placed herself in this position. Her desire to foster a process of collective decision making to achieve the best production, and a developmental style based around combining the works of Stanislavski and Laban’s movement theories (Holdsworth 2006) supports the idea that her method was not requiring of a “genius producer”, rather a collaborative effort. Her description of herself as ‘saboteur and concierge’ of Theatre Workshop also points towards a mutual, collaborative approach, and her prominence as the decision maker and authority being an accident of practicalities as opposed to a deliberate, defined position.
The presence of one individual at the head of a group is not an uncommon occurrence within ensemble theatre, with one of the most famous examples being the Berliner Ensemble and Brecht. As with the Berliner Ensemble, companies like Odin Teatret in Denmark and Theatre Laboratory in Poland have been overshadowed by their founders – Eugenio Barba and Jerzy Grotowski respectively – despite much of their methodology based on collaboration and sharing of creative responsibility, much in the same way as Theatre Workshop. The method of shared responsibility and creative freedom is very much a staple of ensemble work, though with both ensemble groups of the past, and more recent exponents such as Complicité and their Artistic Director Simon McBurney, it is likely that there will be an individual with either an overall accountability for the direction of the group or a responsibility to view a piece as a director – which is the role often undertaken by Littlewood at Theatre Workshop. Whether or not it is always the same person who fulfils this overseeing role is dependent on the makeup of the group and the individuals involved. Working with the same people consistently also makes it possible to explore different positions within the creative process, meaning a range of directorial vision and ideas can be explored in confidence – and if there does emerge one figurehead, as with the above examples, then it can be a natural development rather than imposing one vision overruling others.
Something which is always referenced during discussions of Ensemble Theatre is the idea of a shared aesthetic. When used in this manner, aesthetic can be taken to mean the vision of what form of theatre the company wishes to produce. I would argue, however, that aesthetics can change over time – look at the career of Littlewood and the difference between the earlier ‘living newspaper’ work she was involved in and pieces such as Oh What a Lovely War to see this contrast – but what is much harder to change is the motive behind creating the work in the first place. Here is where the ‘why’ question is most important. The hallmark of true ensemble work is in the united motives of a group of practitioners. This motive or ideology can be the ensembles’ greatest source of strength. Why are people driven to make the type of theatre that they do? Mikhaïl Stronin said it best when he said: “Ideology – not in the vulgar understanding of the Soviet times, but ideology; what the actor thinks about art; what they think about the style of acting; what they want to say”. While the ideology of each company is as diverse as its members, it is important for this common ideology to stay strong, since if everyone believes in the same goal, then it makes the bond between them stronger. When this strength is present, the effect it can have on the audience is quite profound, even on performers like Simon Callow:
“The connectivity of the actors was almost tangible, an organic tissue which made them breathe as one and move with a profound awareness of everything that was going on within the group. I was overwhelmed. I had never seen a group like it and had never had such a comparable experience in a theatre.”
If there is not this presence of a shared motive and ideology within the group, then it is possible to think of it as not being a true ensemble – and being more of a producing company under the guidance of the directors, in the more ‘traditional’ view. Joint Stock, whose method in terms of their development of a piece was certainly collaborative, was described in this way:
“Joint Stock stood for the taste of its directors. The Joint Stock style was the Bill Gaskill style, the Max Stafford-Clark style. This style didn’t stem from a political position or even an aesthetic theory: it was just their taste, what they liked to see… So once again, just as in any other non-collective, unfanshened company, those who stood on stage were fulfilling the will of someone else, for reasons of which they were never altogether sure”
Here, I feel that while the work they did involve collaboration, there was not a sufficient amount of responsibility and ownership given to the members of the company, outside of the directors. This is where the company steps away from being an ensemble, to simply being a more collaborative company. If working as an ensemble, it is important that every member of the company feels that their ideas and their vision is valued and considered during the creative process.
When current ensembles look to the work of their antecedents, one area that is an important source to be learned from is the mistakes made by previous groups. I do not mean mistakes in the commercial sense, or shows that received poor reviews. What is more important in terms of learning from past ensembles and practitioners is to look at the ways in which their work has been passed down to us, and whether or not this has been a help or a hindrance. One example of this is the work of Grotowski and the Theatre Laboratory. While the Poor Theatre and the work that went into developing it may not be to everyone’s taste, it does have a place in the ensemble canon. Given the physical nature of the work that they undertook, it is very difficult to recreate their methods and intensity without guidance from an expert. It is possible to read the theories and understand the concepts, but translating that into physical action is a very different challenge. Without proper guidance, as with the work of many practitioners it can lead to poor imitations and incomplete understandings of the work. Part of the challenge is not to recreate past works, but to build on them, but without a solid base of understanding, then this can be difficult, and occasionally unproductive – some of the language used, such as the description of the ‘holy’ actor and ‘holy’ producer can also make the ideas difficult to engage with fully due to a level of negative exclusivity. This can be especially frustrating for a younger generation of developing practitioners, as it means that not only can an element of disaffection with the work set in, but it also means that some of the most significant research and discovery in the field of live performance is not used to its full potential.
Another issue, though this problem is one of methodology, can be found in some of the limitations behind Joint Stock. While they did have a significant role to play in reshaping theatre in Britain, as well as helping to further collaborative working styles, they were known for the amount of time taken to fix upon ideas and make progress. This can lead to problems both within the company and with those affected outside of it. The primary concern with this length of discussion and debate is that it can foster a lack of enthusiasm or creativity towards the project, because of the amount of time taken to move forward. In terms of current ensembles, when taking inspiration from some of the elements of Joint Stock’s work, it can be a challenge to engage with this level of discussion before decisions are made – though this can be mitigated by the personality mix found in the ensemble, and the ways in which the group develops its own decision making processes.
All ensembles are influenced by those who came before them. Whether it is in their working method – the devising and writing methodology of Joint Stock or Littlewood’s own Theatre Workshop, their views on design by utilising concepts developed by Brecht and Neher, or the deeply investigative approach of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre. It is important to develop an understanding of these works to be able to develop and adapt a new style, suited to modern audiences, and current theatrical concerns. When looking at how this has affected my own personal practice, the dynamics within the group is an area of particular importance – especially the development of a safe and secure space in which to experiment.
When people feel uncomfortable, especially in the presence of strangers, they articulate the problem or the feeling as being that their ‘personal space’ is being intruded on. When sharing physical proximity with a group of other people, this idea of personal space has the potential to be highly limiting in terms of feeling freedom to express oneself. This can be especially damaging in rehearsal space. When rehearsing in a shared space with others, it is important not to view it as one’s personal space, but rather as the group’s ‘personal space’ – that is to say, if each individuals bubble of personal space overlaps, then everyone can share the same bubble. A shared personal space, if you will. This is where the long-term work, contact and understanding of an ensemble is beneficial, as unlike with other rehearsal processes, this establishment of personal comfort does not have to begin again at the start of work on each new piece. Having a stronger understanding and knowledge of those around you are working with can also mean there is time for a wider and deeper range of concepts and ideas to be explored during rehearsal work.
The challenge of this approach to spaces arises upon the introduction of new outsiders – the audience. As an unknown quantity they possess the potential to be truly disruptive. This introduction of a new relationship and the potential to create a new dynamic is not unique to ensemble work – and neither is the effect it can have on both performer and audience member. ‘Stage fright’ is something that every performer feels, and is the rush of excitement before the beginning of a performance can be felt by everyone involved; however active or passive they may be. This must be admitted to, embraced and harnessed:
“The riot that is at the theatre’s heart – the gaudy assertion of carnival values, upturning everything, embracing everything – cannot be reduced to a note, or a gesture. It springs from the primitive act of theatre – an actor and an audience – fuelled by an all-consuming, raging need on both parts of the equation.”
Live performance is unique in its ability to create this closeness between performer and audience – even going so far as to create Boal’s idea of the ‘spect-actor’. The audience must be invited into the performers safe space, so that they can fully experience the work to which they bear witness. This is where idea of theatre being the interaction and shared moment between the performer and the actor (Grotowski 1968) begins to make sense, as it is the interaction on a more emotional, in some eyes almost spiritual, level.
The establishment of a group space takes time, and it is not easy to do. Once it is established, if it is not maintained by the members of the group, then the comfort and freedom of this shared private space can be worn away. The benefits of creating a safe space can be worth the effort, however. Whenever the ensemble style is approached, one of the main concerns is that it is of vital importance to create a ‘safe space’ where the members of the group can be without the concerns of the outside world, and also where they can feel free of pressure or judgement from their peers. This allows for greater levels of exploration, experimentation and risk-taking. This is helped by being able to work within the same group for extended periods of time, as each new step can be expanded or built upon.
The confidence that can be gained from inhabiting a totally safe space, free from outside concerns –something repeatedly mentioned by attendees at the Ensemble Theatre Conference – also has the potential to provoke a greater level of child-like exploration from the practitioner, as well as a lessening of socially-imbued inhibitions and stigma. As mentioned previously, the key to this space is total trust in the other members of the group, as they are the other inhabitants of this same vulnerable space. A subconscious acknowledgement of this vulnerability is needed to realise to what extent the group is there to support the individual. If this acknowledgement is not made by the ‘observer’, then the trust can break down. Once this trust is gone, it can be very difficult to rebuild, and can take longer than the original trust took to develop. Here is one of the great challenges of ensemble work, but also where it can offer some of its greatest rewards. To work so closely with others, in total trust, so that you each know all other members as well as you know yourself can help to create challenging work, exploring ideas on a deeper level than with other creative processes.
One element that is, in my opinion, highly important to development of both ensemble as a whole and the members of the group, is the comfort and ability to share. The ability to share our fears and to vocalise our concerns may not be as superficially helpful towards performance development, but it has the potential to be as beneficial, as it can help to further the bonds within the group. Emotions are something that almost every human being feels and possesses. They give us the ability to interact in a wide variety of ways. They are hugely powerful. Performance, and the creation of quality work, relies a great deal on the usage of our emotions. The long-term work of ensembles can make it possible to explore these emotions on a much deeper level than other methods. If the ensemble all works in accordance to the work of a particular practitioner, such as Meisner or Grotowski, then they might have one chosen method of exploring their inner selves, but if there is not one defined and chosen ‘method’, then that does not make exploring emotion any less possible – much as having one may not make it any easier. The goal is not to explore emotions in order to be able to more accurately portray them in performance, rather to search for shared emotions, and to establish the root of those emotions. The importance of being able to share things which live beneath the surface of all of us is what makes the ensemble different, and also what gives it the potential to create truly challenging work.
When it comes to ensemble theatres of the modern day, there are a wide range of style and methods adopted. This variety is important because it ensures that both the work that they create, and the process that is used to get there are as diverse as possible. As we have seen, in the past there has not been one fixed method of ensemble theatre, and it is important that each new group developing now is able to shape itself in whatever mode that is decided by its members.
One of the clearest examples of this variety is in the size of the ensemble. While it is easy to see an ensemble as a group of eight to twelve people, this is certainly not the case everywhere. For instance, in the German state theatre, they have ‘ensembles’ which can contain 40 performers. This may seem unwieldy but in this instance the ensemble is the talent pool from which each production is cast. It allows for a wide variety of productions to be performed simultaneously, because while it takes a great deal of organisation to keep track of what roles each individual is playing, it means that there is a sufficient number of performers to be able take on plenty of pieces. Furthermore, with the extended contracts given to the members of the ensemble, they are not only aware that they have financial security for a period of time, but also they know that there will be regular work for them to keep working at their craft – as well as being able to develop a greater understanding within the company between directors and performers, as they have the time to work on a wider understanding of their skills.
On the other end of the scale are companies such as Clod Ensemble and Cheek by Jowl – ensemble companies in so much as they are groups formed with a shared set of ideas and a shared vision. However, they are, in terms of numbers, the polar opposite of the German state ensembles, being made up of only a few people. Indeed, “Cheek by Jowl in a sense is an ensemble of two – Declan [Donnellan] and Nick Ormerod. That’s okay. That’s an Ensemble too”. As mentioned above, Cheek by Jowl can be counted as an ensemble because the permanent members of the company share in a vision for the type of theatre they wish to create. This then allows them to bring in other artists with whom they wish to work, and with whom they know they can share objectives. This may sound similar to the work of Joint Stock, which has been said to not a real ensemble. However, I would say that if Joint Stock are looked at as an ensemble made up of the two directors, who then brought in those who they could work with, then they fit more into a similar mould as Cheek By Jowl – as long as there is a shared vision within the group, then they can be seen as an ensemble, no matter what the size. This is why there is no common method of ensemble, it is more that the commonality between ensembles is that they are groups whose members share a goal, motive and aesthetic for the work they wish to produce.
When approaching the question of current ensembles learning from their predecessors, one can consider the knowledge passed on to be similar to a language. Theatrical vocabulary, knowledge and methodology are passed on from one generation to the next, much in the same way as language and the ways we use words. In everything we do as humans, we learn it from the generation above us – whether that be our teachers, our parents or people who inspire us. The vocabulary and application of theatrical practice is no different, especially since “the languages we learn affect how we think”. That idea is significant as it means that when we are learning new theatrical language – in this specific case, the language of ensemble practice – we are also then learning to think in a way that allows us to apply that language.
As we learn, we are also able to branch out towards other cultures and methods which may not be indigenous to the theatrical culture that we are used to. This exploration of other cultures and ideologies can mean that when we create our own work, we can take inspiration from the work of those whose work has impressed us. Michael Boyd has admitted to such exposures as being a formative part of his own development, having been “profoundly sheep-dipped abroad in Moscow at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre”. This using of other cultures to expand our own is not limited to theatre – it happens in food, language, television, everywhere. The ability to access different schools of thought can only benefit us as practitioners. And it is not a one-way street. As Boyd continues:
“Just as the great European ensembles have appropriated Shakespeare as their own, there’s no reason why we can’t appropriate their great auteur director tradition as our own or their great ensemble acting strength as our own?”
In an increasingly multi-cultural world, it is important that theatre, especially the ensemble, continues to lead the way in developing this acceptance of ideas from outside of our frame of reference. The reason why I state it is especially important for ensembles to push the development in this way is that there are such diverse languages within ensemble theatres – from Indian Kathakali to elements of Japanese No Theatre. This is something that has been mentioned by practitioners in the past, Grotowski being one example, and continuing to investigate and absorb elements from these other styles of cultural performance can only help to enrich the theatrical language within which we try to express ourselves.
In conclusion, it is clear that Ensemble Theatre, as with almost all forms of theatre, is hugely influenced by its antecedents. Those who took a hand in developing ensemble working methods have made it possible for current groups to have a starting point from where to develop their own aesthetic, and their own audience. There are influences from past ensemble works, as with any form of performance, but that does not cheapen either the past or the present. With a theatrical vocabulary that has been developed by years of companies and practitioners, it is now the responsibility of their current successors to develop the next layer, so that in years’ time it will possible to look back at the contemporary ensembles as the continuation of our antecedents.
The work of our antecedents has also taught us that there is no one clear description of what makes an ensemble. My personal view is that the most important part of forming an ensemble is a collaborative approach, stemming from a shared ideology behind what it is the group wishes to produce. That group can be two people, it can be twenty people. The dynamics within the group must be given time to grow and develop over time, as they will be unique to the people who make up the ensemble. These are things that have been learned from previous groups, from their failures, their ideas and the ideas that they pioneered. The responsibility of the current generation of ensemble practitioners is to learn from the past, and build upon the foundations, so that in the future it will be possible to look back at our work as the next stage in the evolution of Ensemble Theatre.
My old college, Rose Bruford has announced its Tuition Fees for 2012. They will be charging the maximum 9,000 for degree courses. I cannot say I that I am really all that surprised, given how lowly Higher Education in the Arts seems to be valued by the current government. It is still a shame though.
I can understand the college’s reasons behind charging these fees – through a combination of the tough position that the cut in HE subsidy has placed on the finance department, and through a desire to not be seen as a ‘lesser institution’ by charging less than the competition (for context, Central School of Speech & Drama has also announced that it will be charging 9,000 a year). These circumstances may mean that this is the right decision for the College, but it is the wrong decision for students.
My fear is that the increase in fees will put off students. The refrain that is mentioned in reference to the Arts is that it in an industry you work in for the love, not for the money. This may be true, but finishing training in thousands of pounds of debt may deter talented prospective students from applying. I paid a maximum of 3,250 a year for my tuition at Rose Bruford, and recently received a letter from the Student Loans Company informing me that I currently owed them somewhere in the region of 26,000. I am starting a Masters in October that has tuition fees of 8,400 and for full time study I need to be able to pay around 25,000 over the year to cover living costs, rent, repayments, food, travel and other expenses. Assuming that there are some expenses I am accruing that will not be faced by undergraduate students, it is possible that a Stage Management graduate – like myself – who graduates in 2015 could be leaving College with a debt of 40,000 from the three years of training. When a Stage Manager can earn somewhere around 450 a week, it makes that debt, before interest and other expenses (like rent and food) seem quite intimidating. I do not want to see talented, driven individuals who could contribute to one of the most profitable and valuable industries in the UK, to be put off applying through fear of the debt that they will be placing themselves under. With cuts to Arts Council budgets and a government desire to support the Arts through philanthropy, the uncertainty faced by recent graduates makes spending 9,000 a year just on tuition seem an even more substantial risk.
College will still need to take in the same number of students in order to balance the budgets. With some students being prevented from looking for places because of their financial situation, will there be a need to accept less talented, skilled and inspired students so that the money keeps coming in? I hope that this does not happen, because not only will it reduce the quality of the graduates that College is training, but with several drama schools being in a similar situation, will there be a lower standard of graduates entering the industry.
If, and this is a very large if, this does come to pass then the ability of the industry to continue to produce quality product will come into question, and this would then have an effect on the contribution that the Arts can make to culture, and to the amount of income generated in the direction of the Treasury. I do not want to see a shrinking of the artistic spectrum caused by the reliance on philanthropy and having to justify to wealthy benefactors that a production is a good idea – and I think that this potential over-commercialisation of the industry could lead to less risk taking and less invention. I also do not want to see the range of product on offer to be limited through a lack of talent. This would not be too evident for the first few years, as the older generation will still be there, but if there is a reduction in the talent pool then in the long term the variety of output could also be reduced, as groups and individuals may not have the abilities needed to create a wider, more varied range of productions.
I hope that it does not come to this, and I do think that these are worst case scenarios, and I hope many of those applying for places in 2012 will be doing it out of love for what they do, and will take their places in spite of the financial burden that they will be placed under. If ability to afford the tuition becomes the defining factor in prospective students decisions, then I think there could be trouble.
I guess we will have to wait and see.
I have accepted the place on the MA Ensemble Theatre course at RBC starting in October.
Now after the fiasco last year (my reaction to which got picked up on by the college online account monitoring people), I am not in as strong a financial position as I was last year, so am having to plan out with much more care how I am going to pay for it.
I know how much it will cost me, and am attempting to persuade various family members to help me with it. This is not ideal, as I would rather not be in debt to the bank (loan), the government (undergraduate tuition fees) and every member of my family all at the same time. I think that the expense is worth it, otherwise I would not be putting myself or them through the effort of trying to work out how it will be paid for. This just means that the next few months will involve a lot of saving, scrimping, and avoiding any unnecessary expense more than I already do. I am pretty sure that it will not be a huge amount of fun, but the pay-off will be worth it.
One other thing I did discover today is that a person I went to school with, though they were in the year below me we did work together on at least one school play, is auditioning for a place on the same course. It would be quite strange if we both ended up doing the same MA (and she would be to my knowledge the 3rd person to go from Oakham to Bruford.
So that is the situation currently, and, as usual, it is all about the money.
So, here it is:
I need to make up my mind by the end of March whether or not I am going to do the MA that I was originally planning on doing this year. There is no use going back over that whole debacle, but it does mean that I am in a bit of a bind this time round.
The main problem is this:
I don’t currently have the money to pay for it, let alone being able to afford another year of being a full time student.
I feel confident that I can actually do the course, and that it will be a good thing for me to do, as well as something which will be interesting, entertaining and a challenge. If money was not an issue, I would be able to take my place with confidence of doing well. But unfortunately, money is an issue.
I am currently paying £450 a month in rent, plus around £100 more in various bills – gas, electric, phone etc. On top of that, I have to pay out another £250 a month in loan repayments for the loan I took out to pay for the MA before that all went sideways. Then there will also be travel costs and stuff like that to get to college and back again. Overall, I have roughly budgeted that I will need about £1,000 a month to be able to pay for everything. The course is 13 months full time, so even if there will be some fluctuation on how heavy the workload is, and I am able to find a decent part-time job on top of High Society and CCM (both of which can be busy, can be dead), then I will need £12,000 over the duration of the course to pay for stuff.
Of course, on top of this there is the cost of the actual MA itself, which is, at the moment £8,400. That means an estimated overall cost of the year of £20,000 – which is a hell of a lot of money that I certainly don’t have.
Before I make the final decision, I am going to go and talk to Richard, who was the one that got me into the idea of doing the MA, and all of this stuff will be explained to him. In an ideal world, college would be willing to give me a bursary or some form of financial assistance to make it easier, especially since I am a graduate of RBC, got a 1st on my BA, and since they offered me a place, then didn’t tell me what was going on until after I had made financial commitments to pay for it back in September. I am not expecting anything, especially given recent public statements from Michael.
So I need to be able to find this money from somewhere. I am not sure where, but somewhere. If anyone who reads this has any ideas, feel free to drop them in the comments section.
The next 18 months of my life will be defined by a decision I need to make within the next couple of weeks, so I need to start figuring things out.
“The arts inspire us. They can be exciting, joyful, comforting, challenging and sometimes even bewildering. They bring people together, they raise our aspirations and they broaden our horizons. They are valued in the lives of individuals and communities across the country. The arts thrive on risk-taking. Artists rely on the trust, commitment and ambition of audiences and funders to support those risks.”[i]
I agree entirely with the above statement. The aim of this investigation is to look into the way in which artists are funded and supported. I will explore where Arts funding comes from, as well as examining the roles played by the different bodies involved in Arts funding. There are the bodies that distribute public money, such as the Arts Council and the National Lottery, as well as private backers and supporters, from small fringe theatre producers to major impresarios such as Cameron Macintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber. A large part of my focus will be on the work of the Arts Council, which I will be looking at in some detail due to the high profile role they play in supporting many organisations across the country. Under investigation will be their targets, aims, and the types of financial support they offer, and how this funding structure works. Along with this, I shall look at the interaction between the Arts Council and the government, whose money they distribute.
The other focus points of my investigation will be the affect of the London 2012 Olympics on funding for the arts, with the diversion of funds from various government sectors to pay for the Olympics, as well as the launch of the “Cultural Olympiad” and the impact that this has had on the Arts. Linked into this diversion of assets to the Olympic fund are the accusations of a London bias in terms of funding and support. This is related not only to where the funding was allocated before and after winning the Olympic bid, but also to how organisations outside London, which may not benefit from the increase in tourism, are viewing the allocation of further resources away from the regions and towards the capital, with its already large proportion of Arts funding.
I shall also be looking at the future of Arts funding, in particular the impact that the recession has had on the resources available to the Arts, and how the government’s actions have affected the sector. With the upcoming election, I shall also be analysing the different political parties stances to the arts, and how they could be affected after the election. I shall also be offering my personal ideas for how the funding structure of the Arts could be changed, in order to better benefit both those involved in the Arts, and those who enjoy partaking in it.
Though much of this essay refers to “The Arts”, I feel it is best to clarify the areas on which I am focusing. My primary focus is theatre as I feel that this is the area that will affect me more than any other. I am aware, and will look at, the impact of funding changes on other sectors of the rts, such as the visual arts, sculpture and digital arts as well as music, museums and galleries, all of which are in receipt of public funding. Quite simply, I am concentrating on the theatre as this part of the Arts holds most interest for me, and it is where I see my career developing.
The body that we now know as Arts Council England has only been in operation since 1994. In its previous incarnations it operated as the Arts Council of Great Britain from 1946-1994. Before 1946 it was known as the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), and its primary role was to help boost morale during wartime. After the end of the war, with the government feeling that there needed to be a body to make the Arts more accessible to the public, the Arts Council was set up. As it was not, and still is not, a government department, “no minister directed its policies or decided to whom funding should be awarded”[ii].
The Arts Council distributes public subsidy to the Arts sector. It does not, contrary to some beliefs, run the arts. It has aims and objectives which it meets in the organisations that receive it’s funding, but is not in a position to directly control the output of those organisations who receive its support. In its National Policy the Arts Council “aims to transform and sustain theatre in this country, ensuring that a wide range of audiences has access to bold, relevant and exciting work”[iii].
In the autumn of 2007 the Arts Council announced a wide ranging set of reforms to its funding. The aim of the changes was to allow the Arts Council “to concentrate its funding on organisations of excellence while penalising the average”[v]. This reform, coming not long before Christmas, became known as the “Christmas Turkeys”[vi]. Around 200 organisations were told that their funding would be cut, while roughly 40, such as the Roundhouse in Camden and the Birmingham Jazz, received increases of close to double their funding. There were several organisations, such as The Bush and the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF), who initially had their funding cut or completely removed, but received reprises from the Arts Council after appealing and lobbying on their behalf by artists and supporters. This set of reforms, and the effects that they had, was one of the most bitterly contested and controversial moves in the Arts Council’s history, and even prompted a vote of no confidence in the Arts Council from a group of over 600 prominent figures, including Sir Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey.
The Arts Council has two main avenues through which organisations can obtain funding. Firstly, there are the Regularly Funded Organisations. These are a group, currently 880 strong, of organisations that receive long term funding, usually over three years. The Arts Council believes that supporting organisations in this way “is the most significant way in which we achieve our outcomes”[vii]. The second avenue of funding is to apply for one of the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts, of which there are around 2,800 granted each year. I feel that, in order to analyse if this really is the best way to achieve the Arts Council’s targets, it is necessary to take a closer look at the funding structure currently in place.
The Regularly Funded Organisations received between them, in the 2008-09 financial year, a total of £332million[viii]. Out of total Arts Council expenditure of £572million that year, this works out at 58%, and an average of £377,000 for each of the 880 organisations. In contrast, there are around 2,800 organisations that received financial support in 2008/9 from the Grants for the Arts fund. Through this wing of their funding, the Arts Council’s payouts consisted, over the same financial year, of £68million, or 12% of the total Arts Council financial outlay. This averages £24,876 per organisation or project.
The main reason for the vastly differing amounts of money involved in these two types of funding is the time span of those funding agreements. Since the Grants for the Arts are for short term projects – with a company only permitted to receive one grant per financial year – there is always going to be a lower overall amount of money spent, in comparison to the Regularly Funded Organisations, with its three year funding plan.
While the difference between funding levels is hardly newsworthy or shocking, given the long and short term nature of the projects and their financing, what is interesting to look at is the changes over time in the funding paid out by these two sectors.
In 2004-05, the financial year before the success of the 2012 Olympic bid, the Arts Council’s total expenditure was £548million. The amount given to Regularly Funded Organisations totalled £246million, or 42% of total expenditure. The Grants for the Arts fund paid out £70million, which accounted for 12% of total expenditure. Compare this to the expenditure for the 2007-08 year, which is the final year of that funding plan, before the Autumn 2008 rearrangement. In 2007-08, the total expenditure of the Arts Council totalled £529million, a £19million reduction from the 2004-05 total.
It would be natural to assume that the amount of money paid out through the various funds would also be reduced, in line with this reduction of expenditure. However, the Regularly Funded Organisations received 60% of the total – which works out at a total of £317million – a £71million increase over the previous figure. In contrast to this increase, the Grants for the Arts fund only paid out £53million, which at 10% is a 2% and £17million decrease.
It is my personal belief that this current funding structure does not help the Arts Council to match its stated aims. In particular I feel that the current structure does not help with creating “a better range of high quality work”[ix], as well as limiting chances to “attract more people”[x] to the arts. I feel that the current structure limits new ventures and works against active involvement in the Arts, both in terms of participation and audience support. Also, with the current structure supporting the status quo as opposed to promoting new ideas, the range of innovative work available to the public is severely limited. Within the current funding structure, the reasons for these problems are threefold.
The first reason for believing that the current funding structure does not work is that the “Grants for the Arts” fund is woefully under-financed, especially in comparison to the Regularly Funded Organisations. It is my belief also that the Grants funds are being incorrectly allocated. I feel that the Grants for the Arts fund, and the method in which organisations can gain support from it, needs to be changed. Rather than funding one-off projects – though this should not entirely be discouraged – it would be far more beneficial in the long term to use the Grants fund as a form of ‘start up capital’. This way organisations, especially established fringe companies who have a well-constructed business plan, perhaps including proposals to expand their operations, can come to the Arts Council and gain funding without the need for the long term investment of becoming a regularly funded organisation.
With such a one-off ‘start up capital’ grant, these companies can not only continue to produce work, but can plan for the future and look at ways to become more commercially viable, so that they can become independent from Arts Council support. I believe that it would also better serve the public, as they would be able to partake of a wider and more diverse range of artistic endeavour.
Also, I believe that this would benefit the Arts Council. It would do this by allowing them, while maintaining their regularly funded sector, to be in a position to truly support the arts, by giving companies and venues the chance to become self sufficient. This would also bring the arts to a wider cross-section of society, purely because it would not only increase the quantity of work available to the public, but also increase the quality and variety, since companies can produce works better suited to the area in which they are based, rather than just giving the paying public the same stream of community theatre, Lloyd Webber-funded musicals, and Saturday night musical theatre talent shows on television. If the public is given a chance to attend a wider variety of artistic ventures it is my belief that they would do so. If all that is presented is the same limited list of options currently available, then while the UK may be seen overseas as a leader in the Arts, the only ones who will hold that opinion on these shores will be tourists in London, and those administrators who misplace audience figures for a sign of artistic integrity and quality.
While this argument may struggle to gain support during the current economic climate, I feel that it would be, in both the long and short term, the best option, since there will be more incentive for people to come and see a show, or visit a gallery or exhibition, if they know that it can be something powerful, significant, or just downright entertaining. This might also inspire the next generation of artistic professionals, might possibly plant that seed in a child’s mind that they might be able to direct a show, or become a sculptor, rather than believing that the only people it is worth emulating are the likes of Cheryl Cole, professional footballers or the latest synthetic, packaged creation from the production line of artificial Simon Cowell talent show offerings, which are a victory of style over substance. People look at talent shows and either sneer or believe they can do it. I believe that it is the obligation and duty of the Arts Council to offer an alternative to this Saturday night ‘glitz-fest’.
What is the best way to get people to feel that the arts are something they have access to? Simple. Make it something they can be a part of. I am not saying that theatre companies take amateurs into the acting company, as this would do more harm to the integrity of the production than it would do any benefit to the community. I feel that the best, and easiest way to provide people with a link to their theatres is to make it something that they can go to for a small amount of money, instead of theatre meaning a trip to London to see yet another musical whose marketing is based on which celebrity is treading the boards that week, regardless of their acting talent – for example Madonna in Up for Grabs, who was described as having “all the on-stage personality of a paper cup”[xi] and yet performed to sell out audiences, even when seats were costing up to £60 each. Instead, putting on a quality local performance, which is partially supported by the Arts Council, will allow people to see a good show, be entertained, educated and inspired without the massive cost of going to London to further line the pockets of a small group of producers who are only in the business for their bank balance.
This leads on to another issue I believe there to be in the current funding system – namely the funding of organisations which either do not need a generous level of financial support or need no financial support whatsoever to maintain their level of artistic output. For example “The Royal National Theatre will receive £18,715,431 in 2008/2009, £19,220,748 in 2009/2010 and £19,739,708 in 2010/2011”[xii]. Now while there is no doubt that the National produces some of the most powerful and technically accomplished theatre in the country, there is no need, in my view, to provide them with this level of financial support.
The problem with this approach, and the majority of financial support being offered to large, established companies, is that is can, if not actively reduce, then certainly not increase the number of opportunities for people to work in smaller venues, or in the words of Sam West: “If you cut funding to our smaller theatres then you will eventually starve our larger theatres to death.”[xiii] One practical example of this is Catherine Jackson, writer of Mamma Mia! This is a show that has been seen in 34 different countries, by over 30 million people. She says that the Bush Theatre (which in 2008 was stripped of its funding, only to be reprieved on appeal from the likes of Pinter and Churchill) “welcomed and developed me. They made me a writer”[xiv]. It is venues such as the Bush that help to nurture the next generation of talent, and with the Arts Council’s target of developing talent for the future, the funding of these types of venues is something which, whatever the current climate, needs to be preserved.
When approaching this system with a view towards the Arts Councils objectives and aims, one part, which I believe is badly let down, is the idea of developing the next generation. Working in smaller scale or fringe productions is a valuable source of experience for directors, actors and technicians of all types and if the smaller companies where people are learning their trade are not able to grow and develop their reputations, then it can be tough for younger professionals, and trainees, to develop their skills.
The final problem with the current funding structure is the long process that organisations need to go through in order to receive financial support from the Grants for the Arts scheme. Once the application form has been sent to the Arts Council, they advise it can take “six working weeks to process applications for £10,000 or less, and 12 working weeks for applications for more than £10,000”[xv]. This can seriously limit smaller companies who, unlike major organisations, usually work to short timescales – and of course have smaller overall budgets. Having to wait for up to three months can have a serious negative impact on their decision-making, as they are unable to commit to a new production until they receive the Arts Council’s decision.
Having talked to a producer from one of London’s fringe theatre companies, I discovered that there was one part of the application that I believe is particularly troublesome, and that is finding a venue for the production for which they were applying for funding. The idea that one needs to have a venue booked (but not paid for) for a production before taking it to the Arts Council is laughable. Yet this is part of the requirement for funding.
The problem is that small companies, the kind who could really benefit from Arts Council’s support, will struggle to confirm a booking at a venue without payment, and without being able to offer a guarantee that there will be an end product to put in the venue. Venues will not set aside dates for a small theatre company on the strength of an application to the Arts Council for funding, when there is no guarantee it will succeed. Again, this is part of the application process. Since the process can take “more than twelve weeks”[xvi], this is a real stumbling block for fringe or small companies looking to make progress into a larger venue.
Having looked at how the money is distributed, it must be acknowledged where this money is coming from. The Arts Council distributes public money. That being said, it is not a part of the government. Much like other organisations that operate in a similar way, for example the Technology Strategy Board (which funds innovative technological research and development) it works on an ‘arms length’ principle, whereby it has independence to make its own funding decisions. While it does not have to follow government policy, it is required to account for its funding output to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and the minister most closely linked to the Arts Council is the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport (at the time of writing Ben Bradshaw MP)
The Arts Council has to, in its own words “be prepared to account for [it’s] decisions to government, parliament and the public”[xvii]. This accountability, I believe, has its strengths, as well as its weaknesses. The strength is that when a funding decision is made which those in government, or the ‘court of public opinion’, question, it is possible to find a justification as to why that decision was made. This transparency means that there can be some dialogue between parties involved in the allocation of funding, and it is possible to open up decisions to discussion.
However, it is possible to exert pressure on the decision makers if there is a particularly controversial decision, or if the Arts Council grant financial support to a group or product which certain interest groups believe to be either morally, spiritually or socially inappropriate, or just a waste of money. The problem is this: everyone involved in the arts, just like everyone in the world, has their own opinion on what is, or is not, quality art. The cliché line of ’everyone’s a critic’ is extremely relevant here. And I believe the possibility that vested interests or narrow-minded groups might pressurise the Arts Council in favour of, or against, a funding decision can hamper its work and threaten its independence.
It is in the nature of public funding bodies that they will upset people – some applicants will be winners, others will be losers. However, if the aim is to keep the greatest number of people happiest, then there risks being a lack of expression and innovation in the art world, because people who rely on Arts Council funding know that they will not get any funding if they do not toe the line in terms of the content they provide. If taking the path of least resistance is the safest way to ensure a successful funding application, then many organisations will be tempted to submit applications for bland, middle-of-the-road productions, rather than innovative ideas that push the boundaries.
Along with the Government, the other organisation that gives money to the Arts Council to distribute is the National Lottery, through the Good Causes fund. The National Lottery gives, currently, 28% of their total revenue to good causes, of which 16.67%[xviii] goes towards the Arts. This money is incorporated into the Arts Council’s total amount of money available for distribution, and it is then the responsibility of the Arts Council to decide where this money goes, alongside the money received from the government. This means that Camelot, who currently run the National Lottery, do not decide on the destination of their Good Causes money, but rather it is organisations such as the Arts Council and Sport England who are charged with distribution.
When looking at other sources of financial support it is important to consider private organisations – especially relevant being the private theatre companies. When one mentions private theatre, the first image that is conjured up is that of the West End, with its celebrity casts and spectacular technical achievements. While this certainly is a large part of privately funded theatre in the UK, especially in London, there are also other forms of theatre that do not rely on funding from the Arts Council.
Obviously there are the West End venues, and companies such as the Really Useful Theatre Company, the brainchild of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which has produced shows such as Evita, The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Companies of this scale and influence do not need to receive any subsidy, and are financed by ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and investment.
At the opposite end of the financial spectrum are the fringe theatre companies, such as Lazarus Theatre Company. Companies on this scale operate on financial support from private producers, as well as occasional sponsorship from companies or small businesses. The budgets of these productions are small, and it is not uncommon for them to employ people on a ’profit share’ basis, where the employees, both technical and performance, will only receive money should the show make a profit. While these organisations are an excellent way for young professionals to gain experience and build a reputation, it can be tough for them to maintain a high standard of production without financial support.
One of the other important areas where the arts gain key extra funding is through philanthropy and business links with other sectors. The statistic that “the arts generate £2 from philanthropy, sponsorship and their own business ventures and box office for every £1 of public subsidy”[xix] shows just what an important role these commercial ventures can take. These subsidies can play a vital role in the development of shows, as well as establishing relationships and reputations.
Another form of fundraising in order to support the arts in through the taking of donations. These can range from the small change in your pocket – such as the Victoria & Albert asking for a £3 voluntary donation from visitors, to a donation left in a will, to the case of Andre Tchaikowsky who donated his own skull after he died in 1982 to be used by David Tennant in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet. For example, the National Theatre makes around 11% of its budget (around £6million) from private sources[xx]
While each of these donations is different, they do play an important role in supporting the arts, as well as making them more accessible to the general public, obviously with the exception of Mr. Tchaikowsky. The main way that this is achieved, especially in the case of galleries and museums, is that they are now, with the exception of a few specific exhibitions, free at the point of use. This is a huge step forward in making the arts more available to people.
Furthering the principle of making the arts free at the point of use, in February 2009 the Arts Council launched the “A Night Less Ordinary” scheme, which aims to provide “618,000 free theatre tickets to anyone under 26 in more than 200 venues across England”[xxi]. Through this program, anyone under the age of 26 is eligible to get into a show for free, at any venue participating in the scheme (the venue receives the ticket money from the Arts Council instead of from the audience member). The idea behind the programme was to make it possible for young people to come to the theatre, without it being expensive, and allow them to attend shows and performances that they would otherwise not have been able to afford to attend.
Another leap forward in making theatre cheaper and more accessible has been the Travelex £10 seasons at the National Theatre. Described by Michael Billington as “simply the most radical idea anyone has come up with in years to broaden the theatregoing audience”[xxii], the plan is simple: for a season, all the seats in the Olivier will cost £10 each. As with the A Night Less Ordinary scheme, the aim is to make it easier and cheaper for people to go to the theatre – helped of course by the scheme being run at an institution with the reputation of the National. The important thing though, is that the scheme worked: “In the scheme’s first year, a staggering 33% said they were paying their first visit to the National”[xxiii], and in the National Theatre’s annual review of 2008-09: “paid attendance was 93% of capacity”[xxiv], which works out to be “817,000 people attending a total of 1,106 performances”[xxv]. This is made possible through one of the avenues of increased funding already mentioned – corporate sponsorship. As you can tell from the name “Travelex £10 Season”, the idea is supported by Travelex, who have a contract with the National Theatre of £1million per year, with the contracts lasting for three years.
The London 2012 Olympics has, ever since the capital first won the bid in the summer of 2005, been referred to by the organisers and the government as an opportunity to showcase the best that the country has to offer. This opportunity is seen as not just a sporting one, but an artistic one as well. “The Olympic flame will light the fuse for an explosion of arts and culture in the UK” [xxvi]. There is little doubt that both the government and the Mayor of London’s office want to make the most of “an unprecedented opportunity to unleash the amazing creativity that makes London so dynamic and exciting”[xxvii]. While these are admirable goals which many people, both within the arts and in the general public, believe to be laudable, the issue which arises and causes friction is, as it always seems to be, how the Olympics, and in particular the “Cultural Olympiad”, will be financed.
The funding of the Olympics, and the effect that this will have on the arts, is one of the most hotly discussed topics in the arts world. Figures such as Judy Dench have spoken about their concerns with arts funding being “siphoned off”[xxviii] to pay for the Olympics. It has been widely reported “that the arts have already accepted massive cuts of £2.2 billion to pay for the Olympics”[xxix] – which can be further reinforced by the statistic that total expenditure for the Arts Council has dropped, over the years since the Olympic bid was won, by an average of £38.5million each year. This is without mentioning the funding for the “Cultural Olympiad”, which has caused a further reallocation of funds towards Olympics based products. While the government may believe it has overseen a “wonderful decade for the arts”[xxx], winning the Olympic bid in 2005 has certainly impacted on the government’s support for the arts, and will continue to do so, whoever wins the election on May 6th.
One issue that has faced the Arts Council for many years, and has been reinforced by the success of the London 2012 Olympic bid, is the accusation of a bias towards London in the support of arts organisations. With claims of a “London cultural bias”[xxxi] first being aired in 2000, in relation to funding for the Millennium Projects, this is not a new idea. With London’s population, and the impact of tourists on the economy of the country, it is not surprising that a great deal of money is spent on the Arts in the Capital. What is interesting is when this money is looked at per head of population, where figures published by the Adam Smith Institute state that London [receives] £24 / head of population, while the South East and the East receive less than £2[xxxii].
While this statistic is surprising, it is made more interesting when one looks at the effect of the Olympics on arts funding across the country. Firstly there is the Arts Council diverting funding towards its Olympic projects, and secondly there is the funding change of 2007, where “none of the capital’s leading bodies funded by the council [lost] its grant”[xxxiii] – though the English National Opera did face a penalty. To further add fuel to the fire, there was Tessa Jowell’s raid of National Lottery funding to pay for the Olympics, much of the proceeds of which will benefit organisations based in the capital. While this last example was out of the Arts Council’s hands, it does help to reinforce the idea that there is a bias towards London in how the Arts are funded in this country.
However, one of the Arts Council’s main projects relating to the Olympics, which it is hoped will “spread right across the UK”[xxxiv] is the Cultural Olympiad. One of the main aims for this program is to promote an “increased participation in the arts as well as more diverse audiences, and an increased profile for the arts sector where our world class talent is recognized and celebrated on the world stage”[xxxv]. As a part of the Cultural Olympiad, the Arts Council have commissioned 9 arts commissions, one for each of the regions in England, and has invested £6 million, which covers the nine commissions for England, development grants to the shortlisted artists, and administration and development of the project across the UK[xxxvi]. It remains to be seen the impact that these projects will have on the Arts, especially in the regions outside of London.
However, there has been at least one positive impact from the Olympics. This is the construction in town and city centres of large screens, which in 2012 will be used to broadcast the Olympics all over the country. The reason that these screens can be of benefit to the Arts is that before summer 2012 they are being used to show a variety of other events, from the Vancouver Winter Olympics to, on the big screen in Leicester, a live video stream of Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo from the Royal Opera House[xxxvii]. The use of these screens to broadcast Arts events such as an opera is an excellent idea, because it gives people who normally would not travel to the Royal Opera House the chance to watch international calibre performers, and has the potential to get more members of the public to watch an opera than might have previously.
On top of these commissions across the country, the Arts Council, along with the LOGOC (London Olympic Games Organising Committee) and the Mayor of London’s office, are planning a major arts festival in London in 2012[xxxviii], one of the aims of which is to create a “symposium for arts and cultural thinkers from across the world”[xxxix]. I believe that this festival has the potential to be a hugely important moment in the development of the arts. If it lives up to its billing, then could create a hugely visible, public event where many of the Arts world’s brightest minds are able to come together and create new ideas and explore new thinking. It also has the potential to set an example for other cities by setting a precedent for other such symposia in the future. This, I feel can be the true legacy of the Cultural Olympiad, and one of the main achievements of the Arts Council, and of London 2012.
There is no doubt that the recession has impacted on funding for the arts. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has had its budget for 2010-2011 cut by £60 million — about four per cent[xl]. While this affects more areas than just the Arts Council, there is an effect on how much money is spent on the arts.
As with many other areas of government spending, the current argument towards funding is concerned with spending or cutting. This is an issue that is not necessarily split along political or class lines, but is rather one of opinions. For example, many will see the arts as “cultural comforts of the middle classes”[xli], or that “Only by science and technology generating inventions and wealth can we afford the luxury of art”[xlii] this despite the statistic that “Glastonbury … contributes an estimated £35m to the local economy each year”[xliii].
It is easy to think that in times of economic difficulty that the arts are a frivolity, a luxury; something to only be accessed when one has plenty of disposable income. This is not the case. “In a world where we’re going to have to increasingly put a financial price on things in the year ahead, a society which truly values people who are creative and appreciate creativity will be a better place to be[xliv].
Out of the three main political parties, the Labour Party is the only one that has not yet published an arts manifesto[xlv] for the upcoming election, although Ben Bradshaw MP has said that the party “can’t guarantee that spending on arts and culture can be protected”[xlvi]. The Conservative party, and Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, have admitted that, while cuts will be made to arts funding, they will not be “singled out as a special case, to take an additional hit as a soft touch[xlvii].
Both Labour and the Conservatives have acknowledged the impact of the recession on the arts, with Bradshaw advocating that, in local areas the arts can be “absolutely essential to…regeneration and a functioning economy”[xlviii], while Ed Vaizey, Hunt’s deputy, admits that the Conservatives would “love arts funding to be kept at a very high level, but we’re living in the economic climate that we are”[xlix] The Liberal Democrats have also acknowledged the impact of the recession, and have also stated that the arts can have an impact in the future, as “the creative industries are seen by many to provide our best route out of recession”[l]
One of the main difficulties faced by those opposed to arts funding cuts is quantifying the returns from those investments. It is much easier to measure the return on spending in areas such as technology and science, where if there is investment it can be measured in clear, precise numbers, or in the creation of a solid product or in profit margins for corporations. It is much more difficult to quantify the returns on an idea, when the true value in the arts is measured in more than just audience figures and gross profit. That is not to say that spending money on sciences and technology is something that should be cut, because some of the benefits from this funding can be of huge benefit, but it is worth remembering that “technology without the arts is empty, the arts without technology are blind”.[li]
While the skills taken to achieve these breakthroughs may be hard to understand or explain, the end product can be described and utilised, which is not always the case in creative industries, where results, success, value and quality are harder to measure and quantify. This problem means that it can be hard to justify spending money on the arts, especially in tough economic times, because while “culture, heritage and the arts are an opportunity, not a cost”[lii], that opportunity is, as things stand, something that not everyone feels that they have access to. Nicholas Kenyon, artistic director of the Barbican, encapsulated this perfectly when he said “All the more important during an economic downturn, the arts and culture have a new role and sense of purpose in society. Whether you’re looking for inspiration, education or entertainment in these challenging times, the arts provide it.”[liii].
While opinions on arts values will always vary, given the subjective nature of the work, what cannot be doubted is the scale of the “politically potent, multi-million pound industry”[liv] that is the Arts today. The notion of further cuts to arts funding should not be being entertained by any of the political parties, especially since “The entire spend on culture represents only one per cent of the budget for the NHS, meaning any cuts could scarcely benefit other areas of public life but could severely damage Britain’s thriving culture”[lv], and “the arguments are so clear, economically, socially, aesthetically, that the only possible reason to reduce the total amount of money available for the arts in this country is censorship.”[lvi]
For years politicians have needed the supports of businesses, and the financial sector, in order to make progress, and the lobbyists of these industries can be highly vocal when there is an issue that has an effect on their clients. When one takes the view that “the arts have always been told to be more like business, but over the last few weeks I have found myself thinking at business could also learn something from the arts industry” [lvii], it is not unreasonable to ask why the banks receive millions of pounds of public money in order to continue paying themselves large bonuses – virtually all of which does not affect the public – but when the arts are discussed, it is seen as not being a priority to subsidise one of the most successful parts of the current culture, while all it would take is a fraction of the money lavished on the financial sector. When the effects of funding changes are looked at, both as increases and decreases, and one sees that “standstill funding leads to a 4% decline in artistic activity, whereas even a small increase produces more work and higher attendances”[lviii] it is hard to imagine that funding cuts are at the top of the major parties arts policies. When “The artist…not less than the scientist or the engineer, is a modern key to business and economic success”[lix], and the country is in need of economic stimulation, why cut funding to that artist?
It is my personal belief that the funding structure for the Arts in this country is broken. Not only broken because of the shortsighted nature of financial support from government, but also because I believe that the 2-tier system is fundamentally flawed. I believe that the vast difference between being one of the Regularly Funded Organisations and receiving funding through Grants for the Arts means that there is a lack of artistic development being allowed to take place. It is my belief that, instead of the two-tiered system, a three-tiered system would be most beneficial, both to the practitioners within the industry, those who support it, and those who enjoy watching the results. This new structure would also enable the Arts Council to better meet its own aims, as well as making the funding system more transparent.
The first tier of this new structure would receive the highest level of funding. These would be the very pinnacle, the biggest hitters, organisations such as the National Theatre, that have earned the trust to be able to receive a large amount of support, and have the quality output to show for it. I propose that these organisations receive their funding over a 5-year period. Such long-term funding would allow them to plan years in advance the projects that would be undertaken, as well as giving them real security. Given the risk associated with a 5-year funding plan, the organisations that receive it would only be those with a proven record of excellence. They would be assessed every 5 years, and if they were not hitting their targets then they would have their funding reduced to the second tier of financial support.
In the second tier there would be companies receiving their funding over a three-year period. These companies would be quality institutions, with a record of quality, high production value as well as social impact and importance. The organisations accepted into this tier would have a responsibility to meet many of the Arts Council’s criteria about quality, diversity and regional distinctiveness. Also, organisations with a track record of bringing on the next generation of talent could be eligible for this level of funding. Again, if they do not meet these targets, then at the end of the three year cycle they could have their funding reduced to the third tier, and if they excel at their work, and are always producing real quality then they could be moved up to the top tier.
The third tier would comprise of smaller organisations, which would receive funding for one year. This would mean it being assessed each year, but the aim in this tier is not to have companies always operating on a year-by-year financial support structure. Instead, this year-long funding would allow them to develop as a company. The aim of this is to give these organisations the opportunity to grow, as well as take their own path. They would have the chance to either grow, and meet the criteria to become a second tier organisation, or they could invest and develop with a view to becoming a financially independent organisation that does not rely on support from the arts council. This proposal is similar to the use of the Grants for the Arts scheme as ‘start-up capital’ that I outlined in the Arts Council section above, which would operate within the current funding structure.
I believe that this structure would better serve the Arts in this country, as it would give organisations support as well as letting them develop in their own way. I feel that that the Arts Council would also be able to meet their objectives within this structure, as the different tiers, and the organisations within each one, would allow them to cater for the needs of all those they are targeting. I believe that this system also, crucially, means that the public would be better served by the Arts world. This is due to the targets for development that are intrinsically built into the three-tiered structure, as companies are able to grow and move in their own direction. Outside of London, this could also lead to an increase in available arts, as organisations could adapt to the needs of the communities in which they are based, either with subsidy from the Arts Council or venturing into the commercial sector and becoming self-reliant.
I also feel that the three-tiered structure allows for more risk taking, with adventurous and innovative arts being supported by the Arts Council, since they can give organisations support over a short period of time, to see if they are producing quality materials, rather than just a one-off project each year. As Terry Eagleton says “Post-modern culture may be anti-patrician, but its demotic distain for elitism can sit easily enough with an endorsement of conservative values. Nothing, after all, is more relentlessly value levelling than the commodity form, a form that is hardly out of favour in conservative-minded society. Indeed the more culture is commercialised, the more this imposition of market discipline forces its producers into the conservative values of prudence, anti-innovation and a nervousness of being disruptive”[lx]. I feel that the Arts have a right, indeed a duty, to provide some disruption, to challenge the way in which society thinks about itself, and without support from the Arts Council, it is hard for organisations to really take up this challenge, for fear of not being financially successful enough on their one project each year to make it viable.
Over the course of this investigation, my perception of how the Arts are supported has been changed. I have a much better grasp of the complexity of ensuring the Arts in this country are properly supported, as well as how tough it can be to cater to the needs of different parts of society. However, that is not to say that I do not believe that there are problems. I believe that funding for the Arts in this country is damaged. Not irreparably, but seriously. The structure of the funding system does not, currently, fully benefit either the Arts Council, or those they support and represent. As the primary funding body for so many organisations, they must address the issues of how their funding is allocated, what they wish to achieve in the Arts, and how they represent the Arts when dealing with the government bodies from whom they draw their funding.
The role of the government is a vitally important one, and not only because it is they who provide the money for the Arts Council. It is important that politicians from all parties offer support for the arts without it being considered an elitist idea, or in the words of Neil MacGregor, “We want to give politicians the confidence to put on their CVs not what football team they support, but why life without Schubert is impossible”[lxi]. I feel that one of the major areas where the work of politicians can have a hugely positive impact on the arts is to recognise that societies can be partly defined by their arts, as well as their advances in science and technology – the Greeks, with all the advances of Pythagoras and Archimedes were also known for Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides. The cultural and artistic integrity of a country can say as much about it as it’s technological, or sporting prowess.
The London 2012 Olympics has the potential to be an incredible event, and a fantastic spectacle for the city, and for the country. However, the large-scale re-allocation of funds from the Lottery and Arts budgets to pay for the Olympics may have a negative impact on the Arts that will last as long as the cultural legacy of the games that so much money was used to pay for.
It is not just the loss of money, but the way in which that removal of funds was undertaken, especially the diversion of over £600million from the lottery to the Olympic fund. The major issue that arose from this was a loss of trust in the work of the Government, and this is a relationship that I believe to be vitally important, and it may take a long time for this relationship to be healed.
It is also very important to note the part that privately funded theatre plays in not only the arts, but also in the cultural identity of the country. The same must be said of corporate sponsorships and financial support. Without companies such as Travelex making certain arts more accessible, then a sizable section of the public would not attend, support and enjoy the arts. It is vital to the long-term development of the arts, both within and outside London, that there are more such partnerships formed. I feel that it is key, however, that when these partnerships are formed, the companies involved take on a role in promoting the arts, not just paying for the advertising space. If companies took out similar contracts as Travelex and the National, for example a £15 season at the Royal Opera House, then they could play an important part in breaking down some of the ‘elitist’ reputation of certain art forms, which would in turn promote better attendance and participation in the other art forms, as well as theatre.
Even with all of this corporate and private involvement, however, the key to sustainable, high quality arts endeavours must be public subsidy. The work of the Arts Council is vital. Without state subsidy for the Arts then creativity would be stifled, originality will be subdued and the voice of the independent artist will be silenced. There must be better support for smaller arts organisations, for the younger generation beginning their careers in the Arts world, and above all there must be backing for intelligent, challenging, innovative and dynamic individuals and organisations, and the chance for them to create high quality work, which can benefit those within the Arts world, as well as the public, without the only concerns being money and audience figures. The question that must always be asked is if the integrity of the Arts in this country counts for more than just the money it can generate. The answer must always be a resounding yes.