In an edited extract from the provocation essay ‘Ditching The Renaissance’, Dan Eastmond says it’ s time for the arts to stop hiding behind the notion of benevolent failure.
Arts funding, you may have heard, is being cut. Hmm, that sounds a little gentle considering the arts sector was the recipient of the biggest cut from the entire UK spending review in 2010, a stomach churning 30%, which when combined with a 28% cut to local government funding makes it without question, the billy-no-mates of 2011. So let’s get our language into scale, arts funding is being cut, the arts themselves are being dumped, sacrificed, victimised, screwed.
“Save the arts!” we cry. “Just one more hit, you know we’re good for it,” we whimper, as the sun sets on our sense of security and the dark clouds of austerity gather. How sad to see our proud and fierce cultural institutions, grey haired but full of fight, clinging to the rocks, shouting at the storm.
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!”
Already the axes are raised, from Newcastle to Darlington, from the Film Council to Creative Partnerships, the long shadow of the DCMS has brought autumn's chill to our summer. As budgets get squeezed so too priorities are re-ordered and many arts organisations find themselves just a little too far down the list, often (although not always) despite strong economic arguments. This might be OK if the same organisations could shrug their shoulders and go it alone, but more often than not cash is already tight, losses already mounting, and even a small squeeze to funds teases out the familiar “unsustainable” statement.
If the arts are as vital as we say they are, pharma-companies for the soul, the spiritual oil to the cold rationale of the economy, then how come we seem to be forever on the bread line?
But hold up, what makes arts organisations so painfully dependent on the drip feed of funders? If the arts are as vital as we say they are, pharma-companies for the soul, the spiritual oil to the cold rationale of the economy, then how come we seem to be forever on the bread line? Where are our contingency funds, where are our surpluses ploughed in to aggressive expansions and progressive R&D, where are our juicy bonuses?
There may be a hundred reasons why an organisation is cash poor, but they boil down to three: not enough income, too many costs or bad management. Arts organisations are notoriously bad at business (I know we don't like it, but it's frequently true), but let’s set aside management for the time being. Costs are an emotive issue too, from the value of artists’ time, to theatre production costs, to the running costs of a venue, but if you don't mind let’s also leave this to a sunnier day.
Income, or the lack of it, is where some truly juicy truths lie. From cinema programmes to live music events, from boutique theatre to mainstays, from big guns to the names of tomorrow, generating meaningful income is tough. Generating surpluses is even tougher. Even our most successful arts venues – Farnham Maltings, The Brewery Arts Centre – only generate enough surplus income to keep going and tuck a little aside.
Sure, these organisations are often running income-less projects, central to their mission but not helpful to the bottom line. But lots of businesses run risky enquiries, give product away or manage loss-making lines. From negative revenue campaigns via Groupon, to profitable outlets supporting weaker ones, to Facebook giving almost its entire offering away for free but generating an estimated $700m in 2009 with the rest. We need to stop hiding behind this notion of benevolent failure. Creativity, culture, expression and romance are the very essence of existence; we should be dripping in cash.
Dan Eastmond is Managing Director of Firestation Arts & Culture CIC
firstname.lastname@example.org @daneastmond www.iamdaneastmond.com
This article is an edited extract from Fireworks, a series of 16 short provocation essays on the state of the arts, published by Fireythings www.fireythings.com. It is available in print Follow on Twitter @fireythings @daneastmond @firestationarts