Recent years have seen the start of a sharp, deep and enthusiastic challenge to how the arts are supported by the public and private purse. This might be ok, if our audiences were fresh, far reaching and happy to pay the real cost of a ticket. But years of funding have so distorted the market place and frankensteined our output that none of us, culture maker or consumer, know where we are or what we want.
Austerity isn’t just a money problem, not for us at least, it’s the microscope that exposes the disconnect at the heart of what we make, who we make it for and why we bother.
Cueva de las Manos & Frankenstein
As part of putting my thoughts together for this presentation, two images have lodged in my mind and become integral to this piece - first is Cueva de las Manos, or Cave of Hands, a 13,000 year old cave painting
and second is Boris Carloff’s cold stare from the stills of the 1931 film of Frankenstein. They are, admittedly, unlikely bedfellows, but I have reconciled myself to the fact that they both belong here. Perhaps they are the yin and yang of my thoughts.
We’ll come back to Cueva de las Manos, but for the time being let it sit quietly in the corner of your mind, a beautiful and surprisingly modern image, made with the creative engagement of many and seemingly for no purpose other than to celebrate their togetherness.
Frankenstein, however, we need to deal with straight away and up front, but to do so we need first to go back to June 1945. As the UK, Europe and indeed most of the world begins the task of dragging itself up from the ruins of war and the trauma of such violent loss,
John Maynard Keynes stands before Parliament and puts forward his vision for the cultural near future, a plan “restoring to the nation something it should never have lost”. Out of death, fear and fire the Arts Council is born, with an opening fund of a mere £235k (ironically, at the going rate it looks likely that the Arts Council budget in it’s 70th year may not be far off where it started), The Arts Council kick starts theatre productions, orchestras and exhibitions and within a few years plays its part in the Festival of Britain, an epic event, the ambition and infrastructure of which still resonates today.
Scroll forward 67 years and our closest equivalent is the London 2012 Festival, although comparisons with Woodstock would perhaps be more appropriate, “if you can remember it you weren’t there” they say of the 60s, for London 2012 try “you were there, you just didn’t know it”. Arts and culture (of the publicly funded kind) and the Arts Council no longer need audiences to meet their brief, it would seem.
Whilst I support the Arts Council’s gear change in 2011/2012, and recognise that the public arts sector is supported by a range of bodies from trusts and local authorities to businesses and philanthropists, it is the case that slowly but surely, over the last 70 years, kick starting has become maintaining, supporting has become selecting and funding has become engineering.
It’s hard to make the distinction between failure and need, but with decades of focus on the institutions of culture, the bricks and mortar of delivery, somehow our activity has drifted further and further from a collective creativity and shared aesthetic impulse and we have created something truly horrible. Welcome to the Frankenstein Sector.
“Save the Arts” we cry out, throats dry from calling and wills weak from loneliness. But we don’t mean save the arts, we mean save us. Save us from the poverty of irrelevance, save us from the vulnerability of dependence, save us from the weight of our agendas and above all save us from ourselves.
For as we campaign for our worth and argue amongst ourselves over internships and regions, culture and creativity continue to fizz and progress regardless, in nightclubs and networks, in shops and forests, in public and in private. These may not always take the forms that we know or even the outputs that we like, but who are we to say beauty and the unique energy of aesthetic transmission needs a stage, script, a canvas or even our involvement?
Perhaps our value collapsed when one person in a crowd of 300, eyes tight shut and bass pounding in their ears, feeling their heart beat with perfection surrendered themselves to the moment, or when two friends, over a telephone network, shared the graffiti stencil that made them both lol.
Empty Pockets and Desperate
It was mentioned to me not so long ago that the income formula for arts and cultural organisations should be around 40% earned, with the rest coming from public and private funding sources. My view, from studying a large number of accounts going back 5 years is that our most robust organisations operate more along the lines of 70% earned and 30% funded, and there are precious few of these. From now on, I think for organisations to even survive they should be operating around 80/20.
The reality for us, as the 21st century begins to reveal its history, is that whilst the current shrinking of public funds and tightening of incomes represents a current and very real challenge, the underlying disconnect that bedrocks our helplessness and has been a long time in the making, is our most likely executioner.
To be clear, the disconnect is the difference in value that we assign to our activities and the value assigned to them by the public at large. It is born out by the amount of subsidy required simply to keep going, the lack of influence the sector has on policy and our social profile generally.
In the 16th century over 30% of Londoners visited the theatre every month. In 2011 our highly engaged culture seekers represent around 7% of the population. (Source: Arts Audiences Insight, ACE 2011)
In 1946, cinema admissions in the UK alone were 1.6 billion. In 2012, despite showing a little growth on previous years, cinema admissions only reached 172 million. (Source: Film Distributors Association, “UK Cinema Admissions 1935 to date”)
We are the architects of our own collapse, recognising too late that the business models we have built, the institutions we have protected and the dialogues we have adopted have only served to fracture our relationship with people, and therefore with the future. I have worked with artists who will accept rows of empty seats with a shrug and receive sponsorship from businesses with lukewarm gratitude, whilst grinning from ear to ear at the Arts Council logo emblazoned on their posters. It’s not the money that is making them smile, although this is nice, it’s the validation, but this approval - learned from a lifetimes education - is the sugar that coats the poison.
A suite of distortions just like these grows unchecked throughout the sector. We are awash with mixed messages, hypocrisies and confusion. I meet customer who ask me to bring emerging artists and performers to them but object when the ticket price crosses their value threshold, often roughly equivalent to Harvester “Original Combo”.
Our need to generate audiences, in a frame of disinterest, has led to regional ticket prices hopelessly out of balance with the costs of production, and this in turn feeds the downward pressure on cultural value that keeps the sector trapped in poverty. Heavy investment in bricks and mortar assets has meant that many organisations not only rely on their rising book values to balance the accounts, but are at the same time unable to dispose of them to adopt new models (who else would want a listed arts venue?).
Touring companies routinely lose shows because their costs are based on an ideal notion of income not market realities, whilst funded venues blow thousands on marketing to bring in accidental audiences, because this is what brings more funding.
The confusion in the sector is further evidenced by how we demonstrate success. Audience numbers, financial result, longevity or something altogether vaguer like wellbeing? These metrics, some our own some borrowed from others, may well guide and sharpen us, but if we let them drive and define us we are lost.
What People Want
Whilst the arts sector is currently marginal, the wider creative culture sector is far from it, with a healthy impact and deep fusion with our everyday lives. Music, gaming, fashion and publishing are very much alive despite the shadow of austerity and the public arts sector should perhaps look to these areas for a glimpse of what our public wants and needs.
People need an active role in shaping the future, but we give them monsters. As quaint as it may sound, people need beauty, poetry and purpose. We give them monsters. People want ambition and progress, despite the fact that comes with a measure of uncertainty, but we give them the stolen and stitched reprint of what was. Above all people need us to deliver the new, to find a horizon the separates our history from our future so that we can embrace both, away from the influence of our dusty and derelict institutions.
In a superb keynote for State of the (Arts) Nation in Belfast in March, Diane Ragsdale explored what it is to be a sustainable arts organisation and the paradoxes that exist within that ambition. She gave mention to bush fires to illustrate one of those paradoxes and I’d like to explore that a little further here.
Wikipedia’s entry on Fire Ecology states that “Many ecosystems… have evolved with fire as a natural and necessary contributor to habitat vitality and renewal. Many plant species in naturally fire-affected environments require fire to germinate, to establish, or to reproduce, or all three. Fire suppression not only eliminates these species, but also the animals that depend upon them. Finally, fire suppression can lead to the build-up of inflammable debris and the creation of less frequent but much larger and destructive wildfires.”
It’s a phenomenon that mirrors perfectly the place we have come to after years of protectionist thinking from funders and protagonists alike. When did we slip from kick starting new ideas to protecting the old ones and are we currently in our wildfire, or is it yet to come?
With this in mind, if we are happy to carry out survey after survey to map the economic value of arts and culture to demonstrate why The Arts as it is should be valued and should be protected, should we not also measure the things that we lose?
How many revolutionary cultural projects never see the light of day because we are not equipped to support or even recognise them? What is the number of brilliant young creatives who drift away from us and the number of ideas hungry everyday consumers who look elsewhere because their paths are clogged with Shakespeares and Warhols, with theatres and opera houses, with The Arts and Education?
We must recognise that saving the arts might not be producing the results we are actually looking for. We invest so much energy in engaging with young people, the disenfranchised and isolated, but then betray them by suggesting that project success comes when they adopt our methods. We must own up to the fact that many of the most significant and exciting cultural developments of the past 25 years have not come from our sector, coming more often from computing and technology, an industry notably rich with bush fires, death and renewal.
When we are so entrenched in the practices and ways of thinking that have created this disconnect, looking for a way out is like unpicking a knot that has no start and no end. But there are strategies that make a pathway to a reconnected and vital arts sector that I would like to suggest here.
In “Fireworks” I described a way of working that I called “Exploding Culture”. It’s a term that describes the process of breaking apart the rules of what we do, challenging our value scales, building new partnerships and having the confidence to present ideas that we do not understand or may later dismiss. As a first step it can be as simple or as complex as needed, changing the wording on your website, the music in your foyer, making a phone call to start a conversation you always thought would be interesting or making some space for the performer who has asked ten times over to be on your stage. Sometimes, simply moving a desk from one office to another can start a chain reaction that invigorates an entire organisation.
Furthermore, breaking our habits and finding new ways of working also brings with it new opportunities and revenue streams. Focused on championing and educating the richness of modern life, cultural organisations could and should be partnering with architects, academics, coders and chefs, breathing life into stagnant business models and opening the door to new incomes and financial independence.
The shift here is that not only do we leave behind the motivation to make something complete or justified, but also that we move away from the notion of end product at all, favoring instead a process focused activity. We are seeking meaning not prescribing, searching for aesthetic endeavor in whatever form that may take, and acting only as conduit and tour guide.
Most importantly, I believe that the best, indeed only way to reinvigorate the production of art is to stop trying to make it altogether. Culture is where the action is in the 21st century and the process of breaking chunks off to label as “Art” only produces static relics. Behaving culturally, together, in the flux of new invention and with an acceptance that it is ok to not know where we are headed, is the only way to bridge the current gap between our sector and our public.
We need visionaries who champion and demonstrate that the power of arts and culture is it’s absurdity. That it’s essence is oppositional to logic, measure and knowing and by occupying this space it can not only be stronger but also financially robust.
There is a particularly perfect quote from Albert Einstein that I like to use here as it precisely illustrates the challenge before us
“Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created”
In other words, whilst we can tinker with our make up and tweak our outputs, to really change our fate we must step outside of our practice altogether. Thinking back to our bushfires, there is a degree of destruction that we must embrace to move forward, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Rather like the end of a romance, we can let go with tears and affection, whilst still heading into the future with excitement and joyful expectation.
A 21st Century Aesthetic
The point of all this reassessing, exploring and un-making is to create the space to find our voice, our language, our soul. To find our own transmission forms and meaning, built from what it is to be alive in now. When the world around us has changed so much, why does the theatre of today look essentially the same as the theatre of Ancient Greece? Is it intimacy or laziness?
The disconnect between us and modern audiences is not just a result of how we do things, it is also created by our hesitancy to make work that is truly modern. One of the most common sentiments I hear from friends and colleagues, from students and customers, young and old, is how bored we all are. We have so much but are lost in a storm of options.
We have an urgent need to find a 21st century aesthetic, to find a way to transmit the aesthetic experience that is not a tweak or rehash of previous successes. We must not shy away from the ideological casualties and confusion that are a necessary path to the new, and must not rest until we have found a result that is genuinely independent and modern, if such a thing can ever exist.
Cave of Hands
To close, let’s return to our Cave of Hands. Unlike other cave paintings, which depict hunting triumphs and an array of beasts, this appears to have no function other than the joy of collective action and mark making. It’s colours are vibrant and alive giving it a surprising modernity, whilst it’s mix of tiny and grown up makers marks exudes a tactile intimacy.
It reminds me that at one time there was no distinction between the making and the consuming, no high and low culture and no disconnect between creating and living. How complicated we have become. Then, as if by magic, it reminds me that what we do now and what those hands did then has never really changed, that the most potent and long lasting sparks of culture always come from creating and sharing - in the spaces we inhabit - something we can’t quite do any other way.
Perhaps there is not so much separating us after all, only a little time and a little space, we just need to come out of our caves and into the morning sun, to begin the hunt for beauty, poetry and purpose again, together.
This presentation was delivered on 9th May 2013 at Creative Europe in a Time of Austerity, a conference produced by Euclid at Cornerhouse, Manchester.