In the second of three edited extracts from 'Fireworks', his book of provocation essays,  Dan Eastmond quantifies a disconnect between the public arts sector and the population.

I have already described my own sense of alienation from the pre-existing modes of practice I have encountered uniquely in public arts administration. But since the wide-ranging spending review in 2010 and subsequent fallout, how organisations and individuals like us conduct business has become an increasingly hot topic. We need not only to justify public investment in us, but prepare for the perfect storm of market pressure and loss of public funds. So aside from all opinion, all clever rhetoric and ambitious claims, what do we look like in the cold light of an accountant’s gaze?
Of course, financial results only tell one story and (since cultural organisations wouldn’t quote them as their primary motivation) it would be unfair to look at just these. Audience data tells an intriguingly different tale. Arts Council England’s key data from the annual submissions of Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs) sees the number of events across the UK rising a tiny 0.8%  between 2007/08 and 2008/09, but audience numbers leaping a healthy 15%. The following year looks equally rosy: a 9% increase in the number of events matched by a 9.5% increase in the number of people attending.

there is a curious imbalance here between the health of our audience numbers and the ill-health of our organisations’ books

You may decide to stand by the positive audience trend as evidence that the arts sector is in fact strong and supported, but there is a curious imbalance here between the health of our audience numbers and the ill-health of our organisations’ books.
Deep inside the same Arts Council publication there is, however, a nugget of analysis that may shed some light on what is happening here. Looking at income per attendance, the average earned income per attendance for 2009/10 reveals itself to be £6.31. The average total subsidy per attendance (Arts Council, local authority and other public subsidy) for the same period is £6.45. The Arts Council rather kindly suggests that “the amount put in as subsidy is matched almost pound for pound by the income earned”. It’s a close call, but the truth is it costs more to put events on than people are prepared to pay for them. 14 pence more in fact. Multiply that by the 72,206,610 people attending events in the same year and the difference looks a little more chunky, at £10,108,925.
How we interpret these figures is of course the crux, but we can say with little bias that it is likely that a significant number of our arts organisations are financially vulnerable, that this is in spite of growing audiences, and that it seems that the public purse is prepared to pay more for tickets than the public at large. The problem then, if we can venture an answer to our question at the beginning of this chapter is one of value. Cultural organisations may attract audiences, but where audiences place the output of these organisations on their value scale may not be high enough to sustain them. Pressingly, what will happen as the public purse shrinks and the safety net that underwrites the disconnect between the values of the public arts sector and the values of population disappears?

Dan Eastmond is Managing Director of Firestation Arts & Culture CIC
dan@firestationartscentre.com  @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. It is available in print and on Amazon Kindle. Follow on Twitter @fireythings @daneastmond  @firestationarts

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Dan Eastmond

Comments

Hi Dan Couple of responses to your reading of statistics. 1. We always talk about the ideal mix of funding/earned to be 1/3 subsidy, 1/3 privately raised and 1/3 earned. Thus for earned income and subsidy per person to be roughly the same would be in line with the sector's expectation. 2. I think you are playing numbers a little to suggest that the difference of 14 pence is in any way significant. Considering everyone's feeling the pinch and are spending less on non-essentials, I think that it is infact really positive that the difference is so small! Your suggestion that £10,000,000 is a large number is also something I would contest...that's equivalent to a third of the subsidy of the Royal Opera House. 3. And of course you are not factoring in the fact that within these figures are all the thousands of free artistic events that are offered to the public and which of course go a long way to justifying public subsidy and extending access. Perhaps if you took those free events out of the equation you would draw a different conclusion about how the public value the subsidised arts?

Hi Corky, thanks for your comments. I am sure the Arts Council data will include free events, although unfortunately it doesn't break down any further to analyse this more closely. However, I do not feel that this changes the story told by the results. The data will include events priced from £0 to £175 ROH tickets and, therefore, the average figures used adequately represent the underlying trend. As I mention in Fireworks, plenty of organisations and sectors routinely give away free product to develop their customer base, seed a new product or achieve market penetration. Such investment is ideally offset by the resultant paid for sales. This is economically similar, though i accept not necessarily ideologically the same, as the culture of free events adopted by the subsidised arts sector. The offer of free events across the sector, however, should not be used as an excuse to justify underlying problems. Your view is similar to that expressed by ACE, that a 14 pence miss is not too bad, but a near miss is still a miss and the cause needs to be addressed. Interestingly, the same figures for 2011/2012 show a 14% increase in audiences, with earned income per attendance relatively stable at £6.31 whilst average total subsidy plunges 23% to £5.03 (very much driven by a 21% decrease in ACE contribution). I would love to be able to look at this as a positive swing in public value, as it cancels out our 14 pence miss and replaces it with a £1.39 per event hit! £124,286,866 to compare with my earlier extrapolation, now that is (just) bigger than the ROH subsidy! But with earned income unmoved, I am inclined to interpret this as the first signs of the public purse mirroring the sentiment of the public at large, slowly backing away and seeding the collapse of arts organisations we are just now beginning to see take hold (see Brewhouse Theatre). Regarding your mention of a "1/3 subsidy, 1/3 privately raised and 1/3 earned" income mix being the sector norm; whilst this may have worked for some, I have noticed in my research that the more resilient organisation currently tend to float above and beyond the 65% earned vs 35% subsidised, and I would suggest that this will head further south over coming years. In fact, I will throw my hat in the ring and say that arts organisations and cultural businesses currently striving for the mix you suggest will be out of business within five years. I take your point that £10m is dwarfed by some of the other numbers we can call to mind, ROH's subsidy being one, but the fact that there are bigger numbers about doesn't make £10m any smaller. In point of fact, I worry that this writing off is exactly the sort of distortion that years of subsidy can induce. £10m in the hands of a small group of young creative entrepreneurs, with their own cultural story to tell and freed from the shadow of our current aesthetic behemoths, could very well inject some adrenalin into the heart of the sector to fix the disconnect we are currently supporting.

Hi Dan It may be my smallish brain but its difficult to see with clarity what points you are trying to make.Are you saying that while audiences are going up, spend per audience is not, is lower than subsidy and therefore the subsidised arts sector is vulnerable- as the public purse shrinks the audiences will not "step in" to make up the shortfall by spending more? Well that may be true but it does not display an inherent weakness in the way we work. Spending per audience has remained constant, despite the fact that we know people are spending considerably less on non-essentials. That is something we should celebrate rather than highlight as an issue. You point out yourself that this spend has remained stable despite a massive fall in public subsidy but then suggest this is a worrying rather than positive statistic.. on the basis of what? The subsidsed arts sector is in troubled waters financially, no doubt (which sector isnt?). There are many issues in the way we work, how we see ourselves and how we are seen by the wider public, absolutely. But in this blog I feel you are forcing a narrative into some figures that isn't really there.