This article is about the arts sector, but it's also about arts venues, those supposed crisp and modern chapels of culture that should lift the population onto their shoulders and say "this is what you have made, this is what you love, this is where you aspire to be". It will end by saying that our arts venues struggle to survive because what they are selling (yes, selling) is a 16th century product to a 21st century consumer. Our arts venues have become barely distinguishable from museums, certainly in the minds of our audience, and doom awaits us if we fail to make a brave leap into the future.
Arts funding, you may have heard, is being cut. Hmm, that sounds a little gentle considering the arts sector was the recipient of the biggest cut from the entire spending review, a stomach churning 30%, which when combined with a 28% cut to local government funding makes it without question, the Billy-no-mates of 2011. So let’s get our language into scale, arts funding is being cut, the arts themselves are being dumped, sacrificed, victimised, screwed.
“Save the arts!” we cry. “Just one more hit, you know we’re good for it” we whimper, as the sun sets on our sense of security and the dark clouds of austerity gather. How sad to see our proud and fierce cultural institutions, grey haired but full of fight, clinging to the rocks, shouting at the storm.
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!”
Already the axes are raised, from Somerset to Darlington, from the Film Council to Creative Partnerships the long shadow of the DCMS has brought autumn’s chill to our summer. As budgets get squeezed so too priorities are re-ordered and many arts organisations find themselves just a little too far down the list, often (although not always) despite of strong economic arguments. This might be ok if the same organisations could shrug their shoulders and go it alone, but more often than not cash is already tight, losses already mounting, and even a small squeeze to funds teases out the familiar “unsustainable” statement.
But hold up; what makes arts organisations so painfully dependant on the drip feed of funders? If the arts are as vital as we say they are, pharma companies for the soul, the spiritual oil to the banking sectors cold rationale, then how come we seem to be forever on the bread line? Where are our contingency funds, where are our surpluses ploughed in to aggressive expansions and progressive R&D, where are our juicy bonuses? More importantly, where the fuck is our audiences?
There may be a hundred reasons why an organisation is cash poor, but they boil down to three - not enough income, too many costs or bad management. Arts organisations are notoriously bad at business (I know we don't like it, but it's frequently true), but let’s set aside management for the time being. Costs as well are an emotive issue, from the value of artist’s time, to theatre production costs, to the running costs of a venue, but if you don't mind let’s also leave this to a sunnier day.
Income, or lack of it, is where some truly juicy truths lurk. From cinema programmes to live music events, from boutique theatre to mainstays, from the big guns to the names of tomorrow, generating meaningful income is tough. Generating surpluses is even tougher. Even our most successful arts venues - Farnham Maltings, The Brewery Arts Centre - only generate enough surplus income to keep going and tuck a little aside.
Sure, these organisations are often running income-less projects, central to their mission but not helpful to the bottom line, but lots of businesses run risky enquiries, give product away or manage loss-making lines. We need to stop hiding behind this notion of benevolent failure. Creativity, culture, expression and romance are the very essence of existence; we should be dripping in cash.
Of course there are large, metropolitan venues that do OK for bums-on-seats. They cost a fair wedge of reluctant taxpayers cash to maintain - hello Southbank, hello Tate - but enough of us currently think it's worth it (although I wouldn't ask for a referendum!). Step into the word of the regional venue, where most of live after all and it's a less glossy, more vulnerable story. Here, many venues struggle in the wake of the multiplexes and chain pubs, eeking a living from an ageing audience and last year’s news.
Disagree? Then why are our theatres stuck with empty seats and under priced tickets? Why do our regional galleries echo to the sound of solitary footsteps? Why do our bands play to friends, family and each other? Even our most ardent supporters will grumble if cinema ticket prices go above the multiplex threshold, will wince at the price of a painting or ask why a coffee is the same price as Starbucks. The real gem, the painful truth, is that the arts aren’t valued because they have lost touch. You wouldn't pay more than 100 baht for a knock off Fendi in Bangkok, why pay £100 for another water-colour in Cambridge?
The Arts can't sell itself because it doesn't do what it used to do anymore. It doesn't talk of the future, it trades in the past. It doesn't fizz with our personal lives, it echoes our collective numbness. The Arts is imprisoned in the structures of past generations and no longer speaks to us from our present, preferring the safer territory of accepted logic and spaces, and paying for it with its independence. There is more contemporary truth in the walls of Facebook, a more profound aesthetic in a Reebok hoodie, than can be found in most arts venues.
Where is the language that embraces the complexity of 21st century communication? Where is the music that soars with the sounds of our contemporary hopes and dreams? Where is the uniform of our minute by minute relationship with the world and each other? And where are the venues that wrap their arms around this richness and offer it up to us as something to behold?
Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost our romance with the future. Our love affair with dreams of what might be has died and our artists, venues and audiences are living proof of our loss. If we don’t fall in love again soon, with all the reckless abandon and delicious pain of our first time, we may find that today’s children look back at the arts with the nostalgia we reserve for steam trains and dodos.
Dan Eastmond is Managing Director of The Firestation Centre for Arts & Culture.