Andrew Ormston from Drew Wylie Projects on how arts organisations need stop talking about talking to their audiences and take an actual interest.
Cultural production is, on the whole, a supplier led process. Creating work is cherished as practice that is exempt from the full discipline of the demand side. Cultural policy and related interventions are, as a consequence, about closing the loop of artist, audience, people and place. However, policy is failing to keep up with the scale and pace of economic, social and cultural change. Many people no longer see the established main-stream arts as a significant part of their lives. Can we keep focus on the creative process, or do we go where the market takes us?
The Culture Shift meeting took place in Antwerp, overwhelming me with memories of my last visit, aged 16, as apprentice on the SS Border Castle. This was a formative time and included my first experience of the programming ethos I later came to know as ‘the balanced’ approach to arts programming. A quasi-commercial approach where the tribute music act or touring musical makes the box office income that allows you to promote the contemporary dance or music that doesn’t. In Antwerp, in 1972, this meant taking on the three 16mm films that would be our on-board entertainment for a run to Port Salem. I adopted a philosophy that I would later apply in a range of concert halls, theatres and arts centres. One for the Deck Officers, one for the Engineers and one for me. In this case, 1972, I think it was Cabaret, The Poseidon Adventure, and Solaris. In my 1992 role it may have been The Madness of George III, Buddy, and Rosas. The result was the same – happy deck officers, engineers and culture vultures.
There are venues in the UK that are less tied to balanced programme economics. The major art houses are subsidised to focus on the art. London’s West End is a commercial powerhouse with the figures to match: al-most 15m. attendances and over £585m. of box office income in 2013. However, across the length and width of the UK, programme balancing is the name of the programming game. Many of these theatres and concert halls could almost be called relics of the pre-cinema age. They were taken on by local authorities due to market failure, a process that began with cinema and ended with television. This led to hybridisation of commercial and subsidised programming, an approach which also informs the artistic and business plans of the newer phase of arts centre developments. Migration of civic venues to independent ‘not for profit’ Trusts was a logical next step in allowing for arts subsidies and for more enterprising trading.
The performing arts and theatre in particular, is a mixed economy of intertwined commercial, public and charitable interests and models. The positive outcomes of this approach are many and various, and can be seen in every Oscar ceremony or major city theatre quarter. The story since the banking crash is familiar to everyone, as its implications work through producers, promoters and audiences. Market economics is the absolutely dominant recipe in the UK. Again there have been many positive results, with commercial transfers from the subsidised theatre sector proving to be some of the most successful shows on both Broadway and the West End. But there has been a cost. Whereas access to culture may be considered a basic human right in most of Europe, in the UK, value of access to culture is defined as wealth creating. As I write this English National Opera have been taken in hand (‘special measures’) by Arts Council England for a failure to adopt a realistic business model, one which will include a partnership with West End musical producers. Commercial success and failure are different sides of the same coin. In this example it is the artistic leadership of the organisation that is under pressure, but the more pervasive result throughout the cultural sector has been the rise of exclusivity.
Last year’s Telegraph interview with Kevin Spacey raised alarm bells as he worried about theatre becoming an exclusive club and ticket prices driving young people away, with the average West End theatre ticket now about €68. However, business remains brisk and the same article quoted a €712m. West End theatre box office in 2011, and talked about the variety of cheap seats made available through sponsors at the Old Vic and the National. More recently the shadow culture minister, Chris Bryant, raised eyebrows with his concerns over the privileged backgrounds of today’s performers and a closing off of meritocratic progression routes. His call for a fairer arts funding system is to address concerns of a hollowing out of the arts, with whole sections of society no longer either explored by, or engaged with the sector.
Andrew Ormston, Drew Wylie Projects