Arts funding

A post where I ramble about arts funding a bit and don’t come to much of a conclusion.

Just over a week ago, my friend Kirsty shared this article about the inequality of arts funding. It’s from 2012, but a topic seems to be in the air at the moment, because three core truths are still in evidence:

  1. There is little to no money available to small/regional theatre groups.
  2. People want to be paid fairly for the work they do.
  3. People deserve to be paid fairly for the work they do.

And the problem with these truths is that you can’t sustain a system in which all three are in effect. Either: people have to stop wanting payment for performance work, which isn’t going to happen; or, those with the money have to decide who deserves the money available, but the only tenable position here is “everybody”, since all participants in a project contribute to the final project, and “nobody” will just push people out of theatre and such to the inevitable attrition of will and energy worrying about how to feed, clothe and house yourself has on anybody; or, somehow, more money has to come into the system.

There is a general sense that big commercial shows, chiefly musicals, not only keep the lights on in a theatre, but also provide a surplus, which can subsidise smaller, more experimental work. This is a nice theory, as it’s charmingly simple, but is very similar to the general economic theory (I am not an economist don’t sue me if this is bollocks go do a Google before bringing this up in conversation like I can’t be bothered to do) of ‘trickle-down economics’, where what we do is encourage big businesses to get even bigger, since some of their humongous profits will eventually seep into the rest of the economy, so the bigger they are the more seepage there will be. This theory is demonstrably bollocks, since any big business worth its salt knows how to stop its profits escaping by doing little things like never paying taxes and registering their companies in Luxembourg and whatnot, and becoming bigger leads to them squeezing out the smaller companies and then to becoming the only game in town and then using their power (money = power) to bully-boy national policies – again, not an economist, didn’t even take it at A-level, but what you’re seeing is not a trickle-down system but a massive well becoming more massive and more watertight and what does this rant have to do with theatre? It’s the same with big shows, really. I’m not saying people, when faced with a choice between a musical and a new play, always plump for the musical, because that’s not how art works. And it’s clear that many theatres are responsible in redistributing their wealth amongst their productions. And yet, if this policy doesn’t work in favour of the little guys in general business, I can’t see how you can argue it’s a solution to showbusiness. Even if it does help, it doesn’t help enough.

So what else is there? Well, obviously, redistribution of Arts Council funding is key. Too much appears to plop into the coffers of massive institutions in London, when even a tiny fraction of what they get could dramatically transform the fortunes of a local theatre or a new company of actors or such. (I’m not going to get into an argument about why we fund anything at all, here – you can easily search up millions of statistics showing where even a small bit of investment in a newcomer leads to astronomical commercial success, and I’m a bit socialist, so I believe in redistribution of wealth anyway because it’s nicer than being all Scrooge McDuck about things.) Now, redistributing Art Council funds, it’s obviously big government work, so something we shout about until a tiny bit of it happens, then we rest a couple of years, then start shouting about the rest, and as such we obviously need to do more.

Part of the reason small plays don’t make their money back is simply because people don’t go to see them. Part of that’s marketing, which is mysterious to me, but about which you can always say “it could be better” and feel smug about having contributed to that debate. However, most of it is because Things Cost Money, and, as we’ve established, there is No Money. Or, at least, the impression of No Money, which means people will only go for stuff they know they’ll enjoy. So, we look for ways to trick people into paying for tickets and going to shows. These are two separate things, by the way – in some ways a paying no-show is the best thing a theatre could have, since you already have their money AND the chance to sell their seat again. Actors get pissy about playing empty houses, but they get pissy about a lot of things.

So how do we make people buy tickets, regardless of whether they actually go along? I would be interested to see someone offer a season ticket or a subscription for a theatre. For this flat fee per month, you get to see this many performances, or every show once, or even as many as you can get to (drama kids would gobble that option up). Obviously, we run into the difficulties of allocated seating and tiered pricing that theatre has in its traditions, but if you get rid of that in small or big ways, you free up spaces for people to come in. Depending on the price, you’ll either be leeching off your wealthiest patrons or mass-marketing, but the main revolution in this is not more money but steady money. Rather than the rise and fall of fortunes based on which productions you’ve got running, theatres can start to run on a baseline of funding, and wealthier theatres can take more risks. I hear the Y are moving towards a scheme where you get a free ticket after buying three, which is an encouraging small-scale implementation. There’s also the issue of actually getting people to take these seats, but that’s much more complex than my pay grade.

I’m obviously just waffling here, throwing ideas out there, ‘cos that’s what blogs are for. If you want me to do research or, like, edit, pay me. (See this entire entry as a dire warning of what happens when a decent form such as the article is beset by only the types who are stupid enough to not charge for their wares (which would be unfair, because there is plenty of decent free work on the Internet).)  But there is the element that affects me, in that I produce work, have no money, but need to reimburse people for their work. And that takes a lot of thinking.

On the radio/podcast front, it’s fairly simple. Since I can’t pay people, legally voice actors co-own the copyright on the resulting recording. Since I’m planning to just give it away, it isn’t really a profitable trade, but it’s good to be clear that there is some acknowledgement that the actor’s worthwhile. I think the same might be true for film, but again, actually look this up (don’t sue me). Money would be more useful to actors than copyright, but it’s something. Theatre’s a bit trickier. We’re running things on a profitshare basis at the moment, which is fine, but less fine if there isn’t actually a profit. I’m reminded of the anecdote that Richard Wright was the only member of Pink Floyd to make a profit on The Wall tour – because he was fired from the band, and was touring on a wage. Art’s not about making money, but it is, because it’s taking away from time you could be using to make money and time with your friends and family and yourself and such, so someone smarter and more concise than me should probably come up with a better way to make something out of nothing because I’m going to stop rambling now.

I’m bet you’re glad I’ve taken up blogging now, aren’t you? Look forward to more of this. *gestures vaguely at the preceding mess*

EDIT: If you’re thinking outside traditional theatre spaces, this article is also worth a look.

One reply on “Arts funding”

I think the season ticket idea has legs, and I don’t see much of an objection about ticket price variation. You either cap the offer to certain lower price seating areas or you offer the subscription at varying price ranges to suit where you can and can’t book. But ultimately there needs to be an easier way for smaller and less well funded bodies to make new theatre, rather than relying on larger companies that may have their focus on retaining funding with bums on seats rather than exploring new ideas, edgy ideas, or simply taking the gamble on new people looking to break through.


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