Reinventing the C Word

A Midsummer Night's Dream Full company - Credit Simon Annand (2)

Originally written for Prompt.

Something quietly extraordinary is happening in Bristol. While around the rest of the country stories flood in about the plight of precarious arts organisations and the cuts being passed down by local authorities, here there is a genuine conversation taking place between the arts community and local government about how they might move forward together in the face of reduced funding. In Bristol, the ‘c’ word is not cuts, but collaboration.

The healthy discussion that is currently taking place around the arts in Bristol is largely driven by the passionate commitment of new Mayor George Ferguson. Bringing with him experience from a range of architectural regeneration projects and a personal history of heavy involvement with the arts and cultural scene in Bristol, Ferguson has taken on the role with a firm belief in the importance of the arts to the city and its ongoing revitalization. He is keen to emphasise that he is “absolutely determined that I work with the arts to defend them as much as possible at a time when money is extremely tight”.

While the primary focus of concern might be on squeezed central funding from the Arts Council, money from local authorities also forms a vital part of theatres’ financial make-up. As councils everywhere face slashes to their budgets, the arts are one of the areas up for review in local government spending. One need only look at examples such as Newcastle Council’s widely publicised proposal to make a 100% cut to arts funding in the city and now Westminster’s decision to do the same by 2015 to understand the difficulties that theatres are currently facing.

“Like everywhere else in the country, the landscape is pretty bleak in terms of support for the arts in Bristol and particularly in the region around Bristol,” says the Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris, acknowledging that the city is no exception in terms of funding decreases. “But the exciting thing – and for me the completely new thing – is that in Bristol there is a way of thinking about arts provision and the cultural life of the city which is holistic.”

In marked contrast with the attitude of many other local authorities, Bristol City Council views the arts as a vital component in the life of the area. As Morris puts it, “the premise that the cultural life of the city is an irremovable part of what makes it viable, an irreducible ingredient in its ongoing success, is already made here”. Comparing Bristol to other cities across the UK, Ferguson adds, “maybe we’re the least apologetic of all the cities about the importance of investment in the arts”.

To illustrate his argument about the regenerative power of the arts, Ferguson points to the example of the Tobacco Factory, a once derelict and abandoned industrial building that he took over and renovated 15 years ago. Replacing the old tobacco industry with a hub of cultural activity, the Tobacco Factory is now home to a thriving theatre and has helped to revive the surrounding area, providing economic stimulus in the form of bars, restaurants and other businesses. As Ferguson observes, “it’s a completely different place to the one that I found 15 years ago”. He is also emphatic about the financial value of the city’s culture, suggesting that “every pound that goes into the arts is probably resulting in £10 of regeneration benefit within the greater community”.

But this focus on the arts as a key element in the regeneration of an area is more than a simple economic argument. While there is proof that a flourishing arts scene stimulates economic activity, it is also an attraction for people to move to the area and therefore sustain it going forward. Morris argues that this is something that arts organisations need to recognise just as much as local authorities. “The arts need to be part of a holistic conversation,” he insists. “There isn’t a separate conversation about the arts; there’s a conversation about the health and regeneration and growth of the whole city, which includes the arts.”

One current example from Bristol effectively demonstrates what can be achieved when the arts become an integral part of wider considerations about an urban area. Following the success of last year’s production of Treasure Island on an outdoor ship, the Bristol Old Vic is once again taking to the streets of the city for its summer family show, creating an ambitious open-air woodland set. Meanwhile, as part of an entirely separate initiative, the Mayor is introducing traffic-free Sundays in the city centre. Thanks to the atmosphere of open discussion, these two projects have been able to link up, benefitting all parties involved.

In order for these holistic conversations to take place, however, arts organisations need to work together. Rather than competing for a decreasing pot of funding, Morris suggests that the arts community has the best chance of survival when venues join forces. He provides the example of the Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory Theatre: “We’ve discovered that both of our cases for funding are stronger if we’re collaborating in how we strategise them. That’s not necessarily an easy position to get to, but it’s really vital.”

Speaking about the need for collaboration, Ferguson positions the local authority at the heart of such relationships. “It’s a four-way partnership between the arts organisation, local government, the Arts Council and business,” he explains, stressing the urgent need to bring business into this equation as government funding contracts. “I think the local authority can be the enabler that helps those four-way partnerships to happen,” he adds.

This enabling might take the form of making introductions to local businesses, initiating discussions between the various different parties, or simply ensuring that the arts remain part of the overall conversation about an area. What Ferguson makes clear, however, is that the relationship between arts organisations and their local authority cannot be about funding alone.

“We don’t want to hear that they want loads of money throwing at them, because that is the scarcest resource at the moment,” he says, injecting a stark note of realism. “But we do want to hear that they would like to work in partnership with us in order to seek maybe a more social-entrepreneurial way of proceeding.” Returning to that notion of collaboration, Ferguson continues, “it’s not a patronising partnership, it’s a partnership of equals, in that we both have the common interest of drawing audience activity and investment”.

Bristol is not entirely alone in this collaborative attitude. Further north, where cuts to local authority funding are even deeper, there are also positive stories. While the threat to arts funding in Newcastle rightfully received much media attention, below the radar other councils are working productively with arts organisations to weather the challenging financial environment. In Bolton, for instance, the local council has worked hard to maintain standstill funding to the Octagon Theatre since 2009, despite reductions in overall budgets. The theatre is unequivocal about the importance of this support.

“Since I arrived in Bolton a year ago the support of the town has been remarkable,” says chief executive Roddy Gauld. “During my first meeting with the Council Chief Executive he said he was proud that Bolton had three things: a major football club, a university and a producing theatre.”

As well as protecting funding as far as possible, Bolton Council has worked collaboratively with the Octagon in other ways. The theatre has recently received a £50,000 grant, for example, which will go towards refurbishing the theatre’s cafe and bar this summer. Beyond financial assistance, the council has also been able to think more creatively about alternative ways in which to support the Octagon, offering practical help such as IT and property services. According to Gauld, this all stands as proof of Bolton Council’s recognition of the role that the theatre plays in attracting visitors to the town.

Once again, the example of Bolton has as much to do with a valued relationship between the theatre and its local community as it has to do with money. “I think the Council is totally aware of the value the theatre brings to Bolton,” says Gauld. “It’s obviously important to them as an asset, and of course there’s the social and economic impact we make, but they also see and feel the town’s sense of pride and affection for the Octagon.”

Commenting on the similar sense of pride that people in Bristol hold for the arts in their city, Morris talks about the “character” of a place and the need for local government to understand the individual character of its local area. It is ultimately this understanding that is key to any relationship between local authorities and the arts. “In significantly different ways, cultural activity is a really important part of the character of every city,” Morris argues. “There’s a lesson to be learn from looking at a city, trying to work out what its particular cultural character might be, and then trying to invest in that.”

Photo: Bristol Old Vic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Simon Annand.

Subsidy, Patronage & Sponsorship

Originally written for Exeunt.

“It’s been completely miserable.” Such was playwright David Edgar’s wry assessment of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s three day conference on the state of funding for theatre and performance, examining everything from Arts Council subsidy to the ubiquitous rise of crowd-funding. It is not, on the face of it, a rosy picture. Even in the so-called “golden years” of state subsidy during the New Labour era, substantial investment did not yield new audiences – a predicament that is unlikely to improve now that budgets are being brutally slashed – while the alternatives of sponsorship and philanthropy are attended by a whole plethora of ethical concerns.

There is, however, cause for discussion, and perhaps even a faint glimmer of optimism. To borrow a hackneyed proverb, necessity is the mother of invention; if nothing else, the current crisis is proving to be a stimulating catalyst for new and creative ways of thinking. WhatSubsidy, Patronage & Sponsorship has made clear, at least across the sessions on the day I attended, is a need for new, non-monetary ways of thinking about the value of theatre, a need to ask the awkward questions, a need to engage with and question the inter-linked nature of Arts Council policy and artistic trends, and a need to break through the false binaries that hamper theatre in this country.

Many discussions inevitably revolved around money, or more often than not lack of it. Yet there was also an undercurrent of resistance, a tug away from the imposition of economic measures on an art form that is essentially ephemeral and as such proves more robust against the efforts of commodification than, for instance, the visual arts. As one attendee pointed out during the concluding plenary, the theatre community needs to refocus its efforts on engaging people to value theatre, and not just attempting to persuade governments of its price tag.

Shifting away from the present gloom, the 1970s provided a compelling historical hook on which to hang the difficulties faced at this current juncture. This was a decade which similarly experienced financial crisis, mass unemployment and a Royal Jubilee, but one in which theatrical culture was characterised by a burgeoning alternative movement made up of the likes of Inter-Action, whose founder and former director were among the day’s speakers.

As well as playing with performative experiments in living, this generation of artists questioned the ways in which theatre is assigned value, from the eschewing of box office culture by the Almost Free Theatre to theatremakers’ reminiscences of planning tours around signing on for the dole, delicately captured in Susan Croft’s Unfinished Histories project. One thing that these artists spoke about strikingly in Croft’s recordings was their passionate work ethic – a work ethic outside of and not recognised by the dominant structures of capitalism.

This prompted unspoken questions about the valuing of artists today, a tender and topical subject. Bitter disputes continue to circle the widespread use of unpaid performers by projects such as You Me Bum Bum Train, disputes that often raise valid and urgent questions, but that in their admirable mission to defend the right of artists to be paid often ignore the equal right of artists to refuse payment. If the only artistic endeavours we allow are those that reimburse their participants, not only are we eliminating certain passionate but penniless pockets of innovation; we also rob artists of the option to reject monetary exchanges and pursue a definition of art that sits firmly outside of the capitalist figuring of labour.

This idea of being outside, of being alternative, is one that continued to resurface throughout the conference. But while creeping around the edges of otherwise underexplored issues and ideas represents one of theatre’s great strengths, there was also a warning against accepting marginality. Robert Hewison’s data-chewing key note speech aired some bleak if perhaps unsurprising figures, revealing that more than 60% of the adult population in this country does not engage at all with theatre and performance. While audience sizes should not necessarily be the driving motivation of artists – creativity needs, as Peter Brook would argue, a few empty seats – Hewison’s point was that the theatre community must confront the uncomfortable questions that will be asked of it if it is to formulate answers.

One proposed answer, as already touched upon, is to engage directly with that 60%. Hewison’s interrogation of survey evidence also revealed that while the typical theatregoer profile ticks many of the expected boxes – well educated, white, middle-class – it is in fact an elusive concept of identity that drives engagement with theatre and performance more than any demographic factor. For people who regularly attend the theatre, that theatre both speaks to them and says something about them. Such a component of identity cannot be easily engendered by marketing campaigns or ticket price initiatives; it was argued that instead social interaction could be the key to producing this engagement.

London Bubble Theatre Company’s Jonathan Petherbridge put it nicely when he analogised the theatre as a restaurant. For all that the chefs might proclaim the deliciousness of their food, it will always seem not to be to some people’s taste, but once you invite people to cook, their engagement rockets. This engagement need not necessarily be with the entire creative process, but it was put forward by several different voices at the conference that theatre as an art form needs to be more sociable and to reach out to new audiences, whether this involves working directly with local communities or simply taking the work where it can be seen.

The conference also trudged back over well covered ground in the very British division between “new writing” and “new work” that continues to dominate current conversations and was in this context seen as a division that is holding back progress – a “poisonous binary”, as David Edgar emphatically put it. There was even an attempt during the final open discussion to move away from these familiar debates, with the playwrights on the panel themselves expressing exasperation with this seemingly evergreen topic.

This binary, however, is one that has been perpetuated by an odd, mutually influencing relationship between Arts Council policy and the dominant creative output of this country’s theatre, as explained by Edgar in referring to the split that occurred between text and performance based work during the new writing heyday of the 1990s. Now we have too many writers and a skewed perception of authorship, neither of which is a small problem and both of which contribute to the wider problems faced by theatre today.

So what, if anything, can we conclude? It was generally agreed that subsidy is still important, but playwright David Eldridge hit the heart of the issue succinctly when he said that “artists need to be willing to bite the hand that feeds them in a heartbeat” – whether that be the hand of the Arts Council, private philanthropy or corporate sponsorship.

There was also a feeling that to move forward we have to smash down barriers; barriers between text-based and performance-based work, between the falsely oppositional concepts of the avant-garde and the popular, between artists and audiences. And whatever we might need to smash to get there, we need to find ways to make sure that those artists are still there, occupying the liminal spaces, feeling at the edges of society, finding room in which to play.