Christopher Frayling, Chair of Arts Council England (ACE) recently argued that it is political expediency that has led to the arts being overlooked. In the light of recent funding announcements, Paul Harman agrees but argues that it is the small arts organisations that have the most to offer and yet bear the brunt of this political pressure.
Sir Christopher Frayling is right. The arts in Britain are world class and we win the arts Olympics every time. Well, almost. He knows our success is built on a fragile base. The metaphor of soil, sun and seeds does nicely for the arts. Money from a few generous private sponsors, kings or culture ministers could in previous centuries secure the flowering of a few roses in a glorious secret garden. Today we need a broader approach to arts ecology. Following the latest choices by ACE to favour already absurdly overblown institutions on the South Banks of Tyne, Thames and Ship Canal, (The National Theatre, Sage, Baltic, Lowry and the like) do we see the start of a new ?Age of the Dinosaurs?? The dinosaurs were themselves very successful until that asteroid came along. But the bacteria still have it after all these years!
Sir Christopher would like ACE to be a development organisation. Like the Ministries of Defence, Industry or Agriculture? They support the development of ideas, processes and products with a thousand times more money than he has to spend. Their success rate is often poor because they accept the wrong answers to the wrong questions. A small group of people with strong preconceptions makes the final choices. Narrow that group too much, reduce the number of projects too far and, to follow the ecology metaphor, the gene pool gets too small to allow those very random mutations which produce genius and, sometimes, ensure survival. Small failures can teach you important lessons. Big beasts never admit failure; they just get bigger grants.
Small is beautiful
In live theatre, we need the largest possible number of formal and informal ensembles to provide a wide variety of responses to the challenges of the day. Large buildings in a handful of cities cannot meet the needs of millions in remote communities, for whom the bus fare to town is a major shock to the family budget, let alone the price of tickets. The really successful theatre in the UK and abroad, popular on a huge scale, as well as being innovative, youthful and relevant to its audience, is to be found miles away from the South Bank, Shaftesbury Avenue or studio theatres in Islington. Worldwide, from Brazil to Birmingham, from Rochdale to Japan, largely self-managing and self-supporting small ensembles are connecting with new audiences in new ways. When governments fund their development in the right way, through peer-organised associations, they flourish even more and artistic standards reach their peak. When short-armed government agencies select only a few permanent clients, artistic quality stagnates. They lose touch with audiences beyond the faithful. They form a self-promoting, protectionist club. They dictate a narrow vision of what art is.
The most successful group of small, independent theatre ensembles is those working for children and young people. Worldwide, they are active in 80 countries. In the UK there are 250 such companies. Most are very small and do not receive public funding. They sell their work direct to the schools in which they perform so it never gets a Guardian review. At least four million and possibly ten million British children every year get their first experiences of the live, professional performing arts from such companies at their school. It needs to be the best. Companies know they have to offer what is needed now, and talk to children in terms they can understand about the most pressing personal, educational and social issues of the day. They are the bacteria, which start a ferment in young imaginations.
Follow my leader
Politicians still think of the arts as useful tools to serve political aims. That used to mean keeping people sedated with light entertainment. Then it was access for all. Now they proclaim the arts as liberators of the people?s creativity, but they really mean they want the arts to ?find us new ways to make money?. They want us airy-fairy artists to improve our performance, our delivery. But we don?t need business training from people who only understand money deals and have forgotten how to bake bread, or make shoes, cars or ships effectively and profitably, or from those who lack the people skills to recognise the importance of living a full life. Sure, we need enough security to make us bold enough to share ideas and skills, enough colleagues around us to deliver us from too many self-delusions and feelings of isolation. That costs money and application. But we do not need leaders, we need to trust in our own achievements and have the confidence to face and understand our failures.
Leadership in the age of Tony Blair has some negative associations. Great British industrial leaders closed down our manufacturing base and made us dependent on a handful of retail sheds for everything we wear and eat. People now complain we have no leaders in the arts capable of running great institutions ? meaning big buildings in major cities ? so they dance to new tunes. Beware! Dinosaurs have small brains, big appetites and are not good pets.
So, Dear Leaders, Kim Il Howard and Kim Jong Blair, the deal is this. We will be creative and encourage people to live creatively, work creatively and learn creatively if you give us the freedom to manage ourselves creatively, as we have shown we can. That may mean putting up with our proclaiming a host of different views about art and society. We could win the other Olympics too, and be giants of sport like China, Australia and the USA, if we accepted their cultural values and priorities. We too could make kids jump through hoops from the age of three. But be honest, do you want the kind of theatre, the kind of art, that flourishes in well-ordered societies, founded on discipline, tradition, rigid moral principles and an unchanging vision of the world? Or something more varied, diverse and human?
PS: CTC just got more money at someone else?s expense. Artistic Principle: Always Bite the Hand that Feeds.
Paul Harman is Artistic Director of CTC Theatre in Darlington and is currently Chair of ASSITEJ UK, the UK Centre of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People. w: http://www.assitejuk.org