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?