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Given where we now find ourselves, we have few choices but to pool resources and develop new economic and business structures within which the arts will be able to thrive in the future. Anne Bonnar and Hilary Keenlyside propose some fundamental building blocks.

Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues skyline
Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues: committed collaborators

Karl Moran on Unsplash

Some of the most powerful artistic experiences are created from disruptive ideas and processes, and as a result of Covid-19, arts organisations have been forcefully disrupted. Some previously successful artists and organisations who have enjoyed patronage and popularity may not necessarily be able to deliver in the future. Particularly, in the performing arts, scale and infrastructure have become liabilities instead of assets.

We know that the arts will thrive and artists will create, so how can we move to a viable future which frees the arts and artists anew? What resources and working practices can we unlock? What barriers to change do we need to break down? Can arts leaders implement change themselves or are the institutional barriers too great?

Breaking free and letting go

Faced with the ongoing financial crisis, groups of arts organisations, and especially infrastructure-heavy organisations, might pool their combined resources – and anticipated budget deficits – and restructure them to meet the needs of audiences, artists, their investors and stakeholders. Looking to the long-term, this is an opportunity to break free from embedded institutional resistance to change. Old arguments that organisations require individual boards, leaders and staff because they are harnessed round a specific mission and vision may perhaps be set aside to facilitate the creation of more resilient organisations fit for the future.

It is obvious to many leaders that greater benefits for the public and artists could be yielded through, for example, running several auditoria or similar activities together to achieve the optimal balanced programme for a city or region, thus putting more money into product and less into management. Yet few leaders would consider advising their boards to dissolve or amalgamate with the probable impact of loss of control and influence, power over product, as well as the significant challenges of change.

For performing arts venues where a high level of public funding is invested, this may be the time to let go of the myth that somehow, a member of the audience of venue A is exclusive to that organisation and not recognised as being a potential participant in all local performing arts. Letting go of protective control over relationships with single customers and integrating sales and marketing functions – including the box office - could yield several hundreds of thousands of pounds in many areas.

Some of the most valuable activities which arts organisations currently deliver are those involving education, participation and engagement outside of venues. They demonstrably have major positive impacts on skills, health and wellbeing, inclusion and community cohesion, and are high priorities for funders. In the period post-Covid era, some of these activities are likely to be both in greater demand and potentially more feasible to be adapted for delivery. Individual organisations are often rightly proud of their work in this area and fiercely protective of it and the outputs each can measure to meet the needs of individual funders, even if they knowingly duplicate their efforts. By setting free their teams and activities in a generous act, a more visible, inclusive and socially comprehensive service could follow.

From collaboration to commissioning

Cultural organisations are committed collaborators. Longstanding examples, such as the group that forms Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues, illustrate the benefits of joint working. However, the extent to which such consortia can respond to the current crisis as an opportunity to innovate is likely to be limited. A different approach could be for key funding bodies and local authorities to work together to manage a commissioning model.

Public bodies are familiar with commissioning models for services (particularly for social services) and this could be extended to the culture sector. The starting point would be a shared audit of geographic activity, agreed with all participants, to identify gaps and existing strengths. From this would be determined defined aims and objectives, target audiences, outputs and outcomes and decision criteria.

A commissioning brief would then be produced but, crucially, with expectations of lean management costs. It would be sensible to build upon existing governance and management structures to avoid set up costs, but wholly new operations would be expected. The goal should be to achieve the leanest management cost proportionate to the highest quality, breadth of programme and diversity.

Within a defined region, with multiple venues and managements funded by both local authority and arts council, this could involve some or all of the venues being under one management for operations, programming and marketing. To avoid this structure determining the style of art and stifling artistic diversity, the organisation would set aside external commissioning funds according to an agreed public policy. This would allow artists, independent and touring companies to be commissioned to produce and to develop R&D.

A new model

One size clearly does not fit all. For example, national companies have a different set of remits and current challenges, but recently their digital engagement with audiences has been exponentially advanced. They could recognise that the home has become an auditorium and, as part of their national remit, pledge to make all of their work available digitally, redefining what it means to be a nationwide membership organisation. The experience of the RNT (more than 10 million views during lockdown so far) and the model of the Digital Concert Hall in Berlin since 2008, demonstrate that this is attractive to audiences and can, in the case of Berlin, be successfully monetised reaching worldwide audiences.

These suggestions – consolidating the management of infrastructure; moving from multiple managements to fewer focused on delivery and outcomes; freeing education and outreach to a locally bespoke service working with all providers; and mandatory digital engagement of all work by national companies – are just the beginning of a much wider debate for which we have precious little time and space to engage. Everyone knows that letting go of old ways can be both painful and threatening. Given where we now find ourselves, we have few choices but to develop new economic and business structures within which the arts can survive and thrive for the future.

Anne Bonnar and Hilary Keenlyside are Directors of Bonnar Keenlyside

Link to Author(s): 
Anne Bonnar
Hilary Keenlyside
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Eleven years ago I led a group of undergraduates studying arts and event management on a day trip to Salisbury (population 45,000). Aside from viewing the famous spire we had a talk from the then Director of Salisbury International Festival, we visited Salisbury Arts Centre and then Salisbury Playhouse, all three Arts Council funded. I remember commenting to a colleague after the visit that I couldn’t understand why the Arts Council were funding three organisations in a town so small, each with a management team, finance team, marketing team etc. ‘I can’t see that lasting’, was I think my final comment. Five or so years later it was announced that the three were to merge, which they did resulting in Wiltshire Creative being formed in 2018. I don’t know the details of the merger or the precise pre-coronavirus outcomes. But Wiltshire Creative has a vibrant website and appeared to be doing a lot of valuable work but with lower overheads and, one presumes, much more effective co-ordination, branding and marketing. Maybe a follow up article on Wiltshire Creative would be useful. It could be a model for other towns and the future.