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The arts need to be a little less indignant and a little more honest about funding

13 November 2015

5:16 PM

13 November 2015

5:16 PM

Last week, industry body UK Theatre reported that average theatre prices rose by more than five per cent across the UK, apparently to pick up the shortfall from funding cuts. It was an interesting read, but no great surprise.

While public funding of the arts comes from an admirable social and ethical place – that beauty, poetry, tolerance and a sense of collective purpose are worth spending a few quid on (well that’s my take on it at least) – there’s no question that it brings a good fistful of bad stuff with it.

A situation has developed, in the performing arts particularly, where tickets are routinely sold for considerably less than the cost of producing the show. If we paid performers, technicians and facilitators what they actually deserved the gap would be even greater. As a result, while attempting to ‘support’ the arts (as we currently know it), local authorities, national bodies and private sponsors have also unintentionally dug an ever deeper grave for it.

Pricing tickets to realistically reflect the costs of production is commercial suicide, so funding plugs the gap. To keep the funders happy, venues go for numbers through the door and keep their ticket prices artificially low to ensure they get them, and so it goes on. The funding that was once there to support access for all and a vibrant culture of new ideas ends up supporting the lie of demand and a status quo that keeps creativity and alternative thinking comfortably dependent.

We need to wake up and fess up that much funding (and I really mean much, not all) represents a massive problem. Like sugar, tobacco and the dark side, funding will get you in the end.

With the spending review looming, it’s worth stressing that hacking into arts and local authority funding, as is currently happening, is not the solution either. Arts organisations need more than a couple of years to reimagine how they might fund themselves. The closure of a number of perfectly well-equipped and sustainable venues over the past few years is testament to the damage that will be done if we go down this route.

Just as interesting is the same old vocabulary and undercurrent of dismay that always seems to accompany reports of cuts and price changes. The arts sector bleats to the same song every time; that in order to make things add up, quality must surely fall; that supporting popular, contemporary forms of culture inevitably means less ‘difficult’ work.

Difficult and poorly attended = good.
Popular, disposable, entertaining = bad.

It’s never shouted – our overwhelmingly middle class manners would never be so crude – but it’s implied. It’s why comedians are largely ignored by the Arts Council (despite currently bank rolling most regional venues, like the rock bands before them).

In a recent research project into dynamic pricing at the arts organisation I run, The Firestation, one of the most interesting things we discovered – apart from a 10 per cent increase in revenue by letting our prices rise slowly over time – was that our customers were quite happy for us to do it. We talked to them, let them in to the conversation about value, the costs of production and survival. We made sure people knew to buy early if they were on a budget, meaning some customers grabbed show tickets for as little as £3.50.

We haven’t had to ‘dumb down’ our mission in the hunt for meaningful revenue and meaningful work, just think differently, start conversations, avoid the myths of aesthetic value. Our dynamic ticketing sits alongside our gaming nights, our busy bars and our publishing activities as ways to make ourselves more relevant and financially independent.

We’re not alone, ARC in Stockton, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Square Pit in Belfast, NT Live, KKL Luzern – I could go on – are all finding new ways to talk to more people about more stuff and make good revenues at the same time.

Building a future arts sector that is alive, relevant and independent will take more than a five per cent increase in ticket prices to fill the hole left by exiting funders. It’ll take a huge bunch of new ideas, a little less indignation, a little more honesty and a population ready and willing to make it happen.

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