How do we put a proper measurable value on creativity and how do we realise that value for the people who have the original ideas? Charlotte Jones seeks some answers.
Reed Ingram Weir
In 1974 a total of 25 performing arts companies formed the Independent Theatre Council (ITC) to achieve professional recognition from unions and proper funding from what was then the Arts Council of Great Britain. ITC is now the biggest performing arts management association in Europe with nearly 500 members. Founder members, still thriving, include Actors Touring Company, Red Ladder, London Bubble and Hull Truck Theatre Company. These now form the backbone of what has become known as ‘independent theatre’. Members now range from newly formed, unfunded companies aspiring to make-it-professionally, to larger organisations such as National Theatre of Scotland, Midland Arts Centre and The Dukes Lancaster whose values and ambitions support this sector. Theatre is defined broadly as ‘anything live before an audience’ including dance, opera, puppetry and mime. Typical of this vision-driven resourceful sector is Third Angel from Sheffield, whose General Manager Hilary Foster reflects: “We formed 15 years ago and agreed that we would stop when we ran out of ideas ¬– we never did!”
This sector has taken some hits lately: 25 ITC members last year dropped from the Arts Council England (ACE) portfolio in the National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) review and another 23 members three years earlier in the previous Regularly Funded Organisations cull. Creative Scotland is reviewing its fixed-term funding and 45 organisations lost crucial London Council funding in an unprecedented break of contract last year. Local authority money was the life-blood of the sector but it has all but haemorrhaged away and there is likely to be worse to come.
We should not underestimate these losses and their effect. Ed Vaizey has suggested there is duplication and waste among arts charities. I defy him to identify it. What I see is a richly diverse, intricately interlinked and interdependent ecology – a Jenga tower of creative genius. You take out a few pieces – it holds and more can be built on top:take out too much and the whole lot will come crashing down.
The Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremonies showed the power of public art in the UK. Graeae, Akram Khan, Heart and Soul, and Blind Summit were a few of the ITC companies who made those events possible. After this exceptional summer of sport, culture, volunteering and celebration of excellence the double-dip recession still shows no sign of lifting. The creative industries are the main hope for this country, the second biggest industry since we dismantled our manufacturing base and the only thing standing between us and becoming a society dependent on the whims of city gamblers.
The independent arts sector has something more wholesome to offer: vision-driven businesses employing people in satisfying creative work which enriches people’s lives with relevant stories and energising participation. Significant Lottery funds need to return to the arts and voluntary sector post-Olympics in order for practitioners to realise their ideas.
Recently reported public disaffection with the arts is a surprise and a serious concern in this context. Investment in culture potentially makes us a better society but it needs to be carefully targeted and avoid the appearance of ‘arts binge’. The independent arts sector has always been good at achieving a lot with a little: creating modest, life-changing work that reaches young people on run-down estates, old people in care homes, people with learning disabilities and prisoners. It is important to raise the profile of this kind of work with the public to counteract the disturbing image of the over-rich and corporate being subsidised out of the public purse to doze through opera.
When the founder ITC companies were formed it was possible for inspired young people to pursue an idea, form a company and make it work. Young people today face tens of thousands of pounds of debt after higher education and exorbitant housing costs. Why would they start a theatre company? After the sixth unpaid internship though, even making your own work for nothing starts to look attractive. ACE needs to act decisively and with integrity post-Olympics to ensure that there is some point in devoting your talent to enriching people’s lives through the arts and that the energy and creativity of new artists is not exploited.
Despite catastrophic reductions in subsidy ACE is still thinking big – throwing large sums of money into big institutions where they are in danger of being merely a drop in the ocean. ACE has given larger NPOs the responsibility of delivering its own strategic outcomes. This infrastructure has been heavily invested in but artists and smaller organisations are often being expected to provide the content for free.
Annie Rigby, Artistic Director of Unfolding Theatre in Newcastle, comments: "Almost all large arts organisations now need to demonstrate how they are supporting emerging artists and small companies. However, the substance of this support is massively variable. I see some theatres offering lots of rehearsal space and presenting regular readings or work-in-progress nights, yet offering no progression routes or real cash support for independent artists. On the other hand, some theatres are offering the kind of support that really makes shift happen. Northern Stage's recent Edinburgh Festival showcase of theatre from the North of England was a game-changing opportunity for us and many of the other companies involved. Crucially, Northern Stage was taking the financial risk. Without that support making a new piece of work means not paying ourselves for three months.”
ITC company Theatre Ad Infinitum, creators of sell-out show ‘Translunar Paradise’ gained a lot of attention in Edinburgh for ground-breaking work with masks and prosthetic faces. The company commissioned an artist to create the masks and then spent 12 weeks experimenting with mechanisms to operate them. That developmental work was part paid for by ACE and now larger players are interested in using that work.
Money given to small organisations to develop their work goes further and yields new and imaginative ideas. ACE needs to trust smaller organisations and artists. Take the warning from King Lear: do not give away all your power and responsibility and expect the same outcomes to be delivered. Hold on to the strategic rudder and help the sector to realise the value of its creativity.
Finally, what is the difference between Voldermort and a huge blow-up octopus? Blind Summit, a highly skilled and professional puppet company, operated Voldermort in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony. The Octopus in the more traditionally commercial closing ceremony was just full of hot air! Mark Down, Blind Summit’s Co-Artistic Director, reflects: “For Blind Summit taking on a puppet is like casting a star actor – they are expensive to make, difficult to perform with and will probably steal the show. Our approach is to seek credit accordingly."
Charlotte Jones is Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Theatre Council.