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In the face of increasing numbers of theatre leaders leaving their roles, David Micklem thinks it’s time the whole business model underwent a radical rethink.

London tube station with Show Must Go On poster above
iStock/VV shots

It’s with trepidation that I describe something as broken. As a fixer, an optimist, someone who believes things can be put right, I’m not usually one to sound the alarm. But recent debate about the reasons for an exodus of artistic leaders from our theatres has provoked me into saying what has largely been unsaid. That the model for (many) theatres is broken.

My thinking has been stimulated by Battersea Arts Centre’s Tarek Iskander who set out his concerns on Twitter last week. Many sounded familiar from my time at the helm of that organisation. Even in very different times - Labour government, pre-austerity, pre-Brexit, pre-Covid, pre-Twitter – there were huge pressures on the artistic director. 

The artistic director had to balance the books, to make sense of the organisation’s multiple commitments, to raise capital and revenue, to resolve thorny staff issues, to keep innovating, and supporting a new generation of artists. But there are now additional pressures Tarek describes that are unique to this particular moment in history. 

Decade of underinvestment

But the biggy, often alluded to but too rarely said out loud, is that the model on which our theatres - and many other arts organisations - have been based for decades is no longer sustainable. It’s broken. 

The root cause is 13 years of reduced subsidy, both from Arts Councils and local authorities. All the other factors being discussed of course also have an impact. But the bottom line, the irrefutable truth, is that a decade-plus long ideological allergy to public subsidy for the arts has exposed a broken theatre business model.

It’s not true of all theatres. Some – especially those with enough seats – have found innovative ways of riding out the storm of decreasing public subsidy. Given a capacity of 800 or more, there are ways of maintaining operations, with some adjustments. But for theatres with fewer than that, it’s hard to imagine sustaining the current model much longer. 

Extraordinary moment of state intervention

I’m not being anti-government (well not here anyway). And I do want to recognise some of the brilliant work done through the pandemic, by this government, to get money out at speed via Arts Councils to the cultural sector. 

"Radical ideas are not about incremental change."

The Cultural Recovery Fund was an extraordinary moment of state intervention. It saved hundreds of theatres and cultural organisations around the UK.

The government did something profound and appeared to acknowledge the central role of culture in all our lives. They saved our sector from what could have been an extinction-level event. 

The risk now is that that investment might been wasted. It provided a stay of execution for theatres struggling with a business model that can no longer be realistically delivered.

So, what’s to be done? 

Presuming a change of government next year, we can hope things will be different. That a new government will be more easily persuaded by the arguments of our cultural leaders, and less ideologically opposed to state support. 

But the speed of change is unlikely to match our hopes and dreams. Even a radically re-aligned government will take time to undo the damage caused by 13 years of dwindling investment. 

We must make the case in earnest now to this government-in-waiting for arts and culture and for the vital role subsidy plays in our rich theatre ecology. And we need to be clear about the challenges we’ve been forced to face. 

Fear of being labelled a failure

Being clear about the broken model is something we need to get better at. We need to be more confident in admitting – to our funders, our partners, the government – that many of our theatres simply can’t continue like this. 

We need tell Arts Councils, and local authorities, that the model does not stack up, without fear that saying so targets us as failures. A fear that being on the Arts Council’s Risk Register is tantamount to getting cut from the portfolio next time. 

I urge arts leaders, artistic directors, to quell those fears and have robust conversations about the state we’re in, about the need for change. Get on that Risk Register, start the conversation, ask for help, share the scale of the challenges. And in doing so, realise it is a shared problem. 

Radical change

Let’s talk about what radical changes to our model of theatre might be. Maybe we can’t open six days a week, 52 weeks a year. Maybe we must look at Thursday – Sunday, from September to May. How do we operate, with what staffing levels? How do we commission, co-produce, produce? How much work, with whom? 

What can we collaborate on, what can we do more efficiently, more effectively with others that we’re struggling to do on our own? Could we merge our HR functions? Could there be a shared body in each region to support NPOs with the pressures around staffing? 

Radical ideas are not about incremental change – a 10% decrease in this or a 5% shift in that – we’ve been doing that for years. Death by a thousand cuts. Instead, what does a 50% shift look like? Let’s invite younger people with fresh ideas, to play a bit. Let’s be brave, dream a little, of a different future, one where there’s unlikely to be much extra subsidy in the short to medium term.

I repeat, I am an optimist. Our artistic directors - and the often-overlooked executive directors and senior leadership teams - are some of our brightest and creative people. I am confident that, together, they can shape a different model from the one we’ve been trying to operate against increasingly impossible odds. 

But first we need to say we’ve got a problem, that we’re at risk. The model’s broken. We need a new plan.

David Micklem is a writer and arts consultant and former Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre.