Friday, November 20, 2009

The Weight of Smoke


A story was told by either Harvey Keitel or the other guy in the movie, SMOKE, that some historical figure wanted to know the weight of smoke. So, he weighed a cigar before it was smoked and then weighed the ashes at the end - the difference between the two was the weight of the smoke. The only problem of course is that now neither smoke nor cigar actually exist. Although I'm sure the guy doing the experiment felt great - a combination of nicotine and new knowledge.

I read with interest a recent email from Theatre Forum about the new asessement process being piloted by the Arts Council. New, although mind you they commissioned Francoise Matarasso to write the paper on this assessment in 2000. A paper called Weighing Poetry. The point of this exercise was - and is - to help the Arts Council Team evaluate artistic work.

Among the key criteria for evaluation we have

* Ambition (innovation, risk-taking, originality)

We have a problem here, right at the get-go. What if the artist's notion of ambition, innovation, risk taking and originality are at odds with the evaluators? Or vice versa. What if both their notions of ambition etc are at odds with what the audience are prepared to engage in? Originality is one of the most questionable concepts here, because the more we are aware of the work of other artists in other times and other places the less original much work becomes. But to the artist who knows nothing of what what the viewer knows,  their work seems so terribly original to them. Who decides what is ambition in an artistic context and do we exclude social, political, philosophical ambition from the artistic?

* Execution (quality of technique, skill, performance, sceneography, direction, etc.) Yes, but is the evaluation of the execution to be at all mitigated by the ambition (etc) and by our awareness of the economic context of production? Or are we to assume that the evaluators have some absolute knowledge of and skill in the techniques they are evaluating against which they will measure the achievements of the artists?

* Effectiveness (connection with the audience, engagement & audience response, the extent to which piece affects change and leaves a lasting impression). Now this is an absolute beauty! What happens - as has been known to happen - when an audience cheers and weeps and stomps their feet at what is patently (from a  particular point of view) a piece of shit! Does the evaluator reevaluate their own criteria to try to comprehend something about the shit that they missed. Or indeed, when the evaluator sits nearly alone in the theatre, moved beyond tears by this piece of theatre that the rest of the population is staying away from in droves, will this ambitious, innovative, original and risk taking - in their opinion - theatrical event be marked poorly because it has so clearly failed to connect with the audience. And will the extent of the connection be considered with reference to the size of the marketing budget?

I really don't think that any of those criteria in the hands of any group of people fill me with confidence, quite simply because artistic evaluation is a subjective event, which is slightly more credible than a matter of opinion.The arts council have been running around in circles for decades trying to base their decisions on, and defending those decisions in terms of, objective artistic criteria.

Here's an idea to solve the problem of subjectivity. What if the arts council redefined its role so that its purpose was not to identify and support art (how are they uniquely qualified to perform this mandarin task?) but to support and develop the infrastructure in which a whole range of artists and expressions could thrive?

The only criteria they then need to apply to an evaluation is what kind of support does this artist or organisation need and the only criteria they need to apply to a decision is in what way will this decision enhance the overall well-being of the industry (it's ability to grow and sustain itself).

One of the problems with the current artist/funder relationship is that by focusing on the subjective notion of the artistic merits of individuals rather than on the development of an integrated  sector they have created a dependency organisation rather than a development organisation. The arts sector is like Samson with a really sharp haircut. A huge, powerless, lumbering slave.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing comments about this new evaluation process is this phrase:

"The ambition is that everyone who asks the Arts Council to see their work will have their work seen." Mmmmm. I've been doing this for 25 years and they still haven't solved this problem.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Can a Facebook Campaign bring Traffic to a Standstill?

The couple of paragraphs on the arts stuck into the new programme for government agreed by the Greens and FF are not in any way, shape or form inspiring or reassuring. I'm not looking at it now but if memory serves all it said was that a priority was to move the Abbey into the GPO, not ditch the Film Board and do what it could to encourage participation in the arts.

In other words the only important aspect of professional theatre in the mind of our incumbant government is the cultural tourism aspect. Lets have a big, expensive National Theatre building on the capital's main street. They clearly don't understand that its what goes on inside that's important and that - if the truth be told - the state and location of the building doesn't actually matter. No matter, this government is committed to another expensive capital project which will ultimate pour money into the builing sector and take it out of the theatre sector. Its a very clear indication that the this government favours those insititutions that feed their agenda of cultural tourism - and that represents five clients of the arts council.

They won't do away with the film board. That's a good thing, but why isn't there a similar assurance in the programme for government that they won't do away with the dept of arts etc or a reassurane that they wont reduce the arts council budget by 40% over the next two years? Because the decision has already been taken.

I remember sitting at a board meeting for an arts organisation that was in financial trouble some years ago, when a senior member of the relevant county council put forward the following for serious consideration: "Could you not do some of those community arts projects that involve lots of people and don't cost any money" A bureaucrats perception of participation.

The argument that will be used will be that we need to focus on building audiences for the theatre so that it doesn't have to be so dependent on subsidy so we'll focus available resources on participation to develop public appreciation for the arts, because we need to start having a dialogue with the audience again. Except there are no available resources.

So, a lovely new Abbey, a Film Board, and .....that's about all we can look forward to.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Point of all this Art

A very disturbing thought hit me recently as I applauded the launch of the national campaign for the arts and read all the news from the face-book groups and read the letters to the times and the tweets from Farmleigh. I haven't heard a single compelling argument for maintaining funding to the arts at any level. Now, I work in the arts, I'm sympathetic to the principal of funding and I had to admit that if I was a civil servant I would not be swayed by anything I had heard.

I have heard a lot of words like soul, and uplifting and cutural identity and distinctive and so on and some mad stuff about the arts and smart economies, and cultural tourism and employment numbers etc etc, but saying something is important don't make it so. And the claims I'm hearing seem to be at odds with the experience I live. I would suggest that the vast majority of us do not create a distinctive culture but consume an essentially American diet. (Spend an evening in the company of actors and see how quickly we move through discussions of Irish drama and on to the last series of the Wire). Most of us don't go to the theatre, or spend time in art galleries or read the novels of Colm Tobin. Some of us do but most of us watch telly, read the sports pages, go to the movies, and read Cecelia Ahern (or in my case the novels of Neal Stephenson). As most regional arts centres will report they have to programme tribute bands and stand up comics to keep their audience figures up because the audience for Art, for whatever has been decided is art is tiny. It is tiny and it is predominantly class specific. In short a lot of public money is being fed into an arts structure that is consumed by a small group of professional and wealthy people or the children thereof.

Its oddly appropriate that the arguments for the preservation of the arts have fallen into the consumerist mode of thinking. Looking at a ballet, a play, a painting, reading a "good " book will not - in and off itself - make anyone smarter or better, nor will it make them want to repeat the expreience. This is a fundamental misunderstanding based on the exclusion of production from the equation. Our world in the last decade of insanity didn't want people to make things, we wanted them to buy things, lots of things, the economy was driven by consumption and we have a near religious belief in its power and necessity. And so we now have the argument that the arts must be consumed to make us feel good about ourselves.

A lot of work has been done on the impact of the arts on personality development. If you want the arts to make a smarter population then make production and participation freely available to all from the first day in school to the last. A person does not learn leadership from watching Henry V, or team building skills from a Marina Carr play, but they can learn a whole range of skills from trying to put a production on; the same goes for the visual and the musical arts. Consumption, by itself is just that. Combined with production and participation then the arts begin to achieve some of the extraordinary things claimed for them. The research is there to support this claim. It does not make morally better people (remember that hitler was an accomplished painter and great patron of the arts) but it does seem to make us smarter, more flexible, more able to problem solve, to think independently and to conceptualise outside the box.

The other argument is, essentially, whether the arts are a net benificiary or benefactor of the public purse. I have not seen any research that caluclates the gross return to the exechequer of artistic funding. I do know that in my own case the company I work for returns 84% of its grant to the government in direct and indirect taxation and in savings to the social welfare by taking people off the dole. The net cost to the state of funding us is therefore 16% of the face value of the grant.

More disturbing than this it would seen that a line has been drawn - arbitrarily in my opinion - between artistic and commercial pursuits. Wouldn't it be nice if artists and production companies were encouraged and rewarded to develop and produce one fantastically commercial product a year. By commerical I mean profitable. Something with the potential to generate cash flow and profit for two years at least. The funding bodies now under threat of cuts have over the last twentyfive years encouraged the development of work that is of minority interest and endowed with no commerical value. There are of course a few notable exceptions. So notable in fact that we have to question the consistency of the criteria. But that's another matter.

I personally believe may of the claims made by the various campaigners for the arts, but I also accept the comment made by an economist recently that there is no way to accurately corellate the level of foreign direct investment, export earnings or tourism to the level of government spending on the arts. There is speculation and there is passion but there is no formula. Therein lies one of the great weaknessess in the argument.

We are lacking commerical vision, the coherent long term business plan, the solid strategies and the quantifiable outcomes.

We also need to stop confusing the impact of the consumption of art with the very real impact of participation in it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


From 2008 to 2009 the Arts Council took a 15% cut (I think this is accurate but need to check it). At the Theatre Forum Conference in Wexford John O'Kane of the Arts Council suggested that we should brace ourselves for another 20% cut going into 2010 and a further 20% going into 2011. Ok, that brings us dangerously close to 50% of what was available in 2008. Now, in 2008 the Arts Council spent in excess of 50% on five clients....

In other words in 2011 there will only be enough money to underfund those five clients.

And we should bear in mind that the department (or whatever department the arts end up in ) will view those five clients as theatre's major contribution to cultural tourism and will ensure their continued survival.

I don't see any money left for this hub, or rim or axle or whatever....

While I'm on the topic of hubs didn't we used to call them theatres? You know a place where a writer or a director would take their script or idea and then that place would agree to produce the show, and they'd look after all the finance, production, staffing and marketing and they wouldn't have to hire a performance space because they were one. Oh and yes, they had set workshops (no transport costs) and wardrobe departments and stuff like that, real cost saving things. But that wouldn't work here because most of our theatres don't have enough cash resouces to invest in shows nor do they have the physical space for all those other cash saving ideas that used to be part of theatres.
As Mark Twain reputedly said there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Over the last few months everybody working in theatre and the arts has been subjected to a storm of statistics, powerpoint charts of every shape and size, and admonitions that everything has to change, made in that unique tone of voice reserved for ungrateful children and beggars.

Well I want to add to the great statistical conversation with some figures of my own. In 2009 the company I work for was given an Arts Council award for €120,000. By the end of 2009 we will have returned approximately €51,000 to revenue in direct taxation, approximately €10,000 in indirect taxation and we will have saved the social welfare about €40,000 by taking people off the live register. Which means that the net cost of our "grant" is €20,000 or 16.5% of the face value of the "grant".

I'm italicising the word grant because to my mind if somebody gives me money and I give most or all of it back then what they've given me is either a loan or an investment. Very different from a grant.

However, back to the point. What if this statistic mentioned above were true of every arts council and local authority supported organisation in the country. It's a very simple analysis to carry out I suggest we all do it and see if, in fact, the net cost to the exchequer of investing in theatre is 16% of the face value of the investment. Wouldn't that be interesting? If theatre really only cost the government 16% of what they say it costs.

We should be realistic though, we are still costing the state money - albeit only 16% of what they think we're costing. Surely the best argument we can make for maintaining funding at existing levels is a plan to develop other revenue streams (sponsorship, Endowment funds, affinity schemes, reclaiming the booking fee) that we can invest primarily in increased production, which means more jobs and more VAT, which means we narrow that 16% gap between investment and return. The long term objective, of course, is to make the state a net beneficiary rather than a net benefactor.

The only way we can do this is to disover the power of the industry we work in. All of us feel threatened by the rumours and by our own knowledge of the depth and extent of this recession. What we must not feel is isolated. If we think we are dependent on a handout from the Arts Council so we can do some art with some like minded people, then we are vulnerable. When we realise that we are a nationwide industry managing state investment in a - mostly - imaginative and cost effective fashion then we can see possibilities.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Practical Suggestions for Collaboration in the Theatre Sector

In the light of the presentations made at the Theatre Forum Conference and in the light of the Arts Council’s document “EXAMINING NEW WAYS TO FUND THE PRODUCTION AND PRESENTATION OF THEATRE” I would like to make the following observations and practical suggestions


The call from the conference was to collaborate or collapse. Find new ways of working or not work at all.

I'm not very good at the grand concept so I want to outline a way of thinking, and a plan of action.

First the problem is systemic and two fold.

* Over the years we have become dependent on a single revenue stream;
* The supply of cash has dried up.

If this is the problem then we have to find solutions to both our dependency and the cash supply problem. I'll return to this in a moment.

Annette Clancy posed a very interesting question during the panel discussion: what have we done with all the money. Here's an answer: we have invested in the development of a human and capital infrastructure of considerable resilience and cash generating potential when viewed as a unified whole and not as a loose assembly of disparate organisations, each fighting its own corner for a share of an ever decreasing pie. If we damage that infrastructure now its ability to earn will be greatly diminished.

OK lets go back to the solution:

The theatre sector – according to the ITI is 85 venues of various size and 146 production companies (some of them I assume are no longer in operation, but it’s still a significant number) spread across the country.

Extrapolating out from my experience as a venue manager and as a company manager I would estimate that together they have mailing lists of about 350,000. According to a DataBox representative this network of 85 venues and 146 production companies generates online ticket sales per month of in excess of €400K; according to Heather Maitland its becoming increasingly skilled at audience data capture, and audience segmentation, which means that those lists are growing and that they are being well managed.

The theatre sector, our industry of 85 venues and 146 production companies, needs to realise the earning potential and sustainability of the sector as a whole. No single organisation can leverage the kind of investment and support the whole sector can when we act together. Here’s how we can do that.


We all know how difficult it is secure meaningful sponsorship for our venue or our company. But imagine this: we walk into a sponsor with a shiny powerpoint presentation that says do you want to be part of a year long event that happens throughout the country every week, with mailing lists of 350,00 and growing, with print and advertising opportunities continuous throughout the year, with thousands of unique web visitors per month and the added PR opportunity of saving an entire art form?

We have a chance of securing the second largest sponsorship deal in the country.

Tie this into the planned national campaign being developed by the Arts Council to promote the arts with Failte Ireland and this has very considerable earning potential.

I've heard the argument that this wouldn't work because the big organisations would take the most – but that’s what's happening now! Precisely because they are large they are attracting the support. But how much could we raise if we stop seeing lots of small companies and organisations and see one very large, multi-faceted network?

T he GAA were constantly referenced at the Conference. They have done this and the money HAS passed down to the clubs. Of course there are issues about how the money would be divided. But not to act on this NOW is like not getting into a lifeboat because we can’t agree on the style of rowing.


Nearly every venue in the country has outsourced its outline ticketing to DataBox or a similar CRM provider. Until recently it took two weeks for the money from an online sale to arrive in a venues account. Also Databox had a charge on every transaction.

If the sector (that’s all of us acting together) controlled the online ticketing then the booking charges could accrue to the sector (that’s about €30,000 per month). Also if we agreed that all on-line sales that pass through our wholly owned online booking system be allowed to sit in an account for a month then we would be moving toward a situation where we would have an amount in excess of €400,000 permanantly on deposit, earning interest, throughout the year.


The GAA (again) as well as many other representative organisations use affinity schemes. Here’s how they work. There is a particular telecoms provider that runs a scheme whereby any individual or organisation affilliated to the GAA can switch to their telecoms service and have their monthly bill reduced by 10%. The telecoms provider will then pay 15% of that phone bill to the GAA EVERY MONTH.

If we assume that we have mailing lists of 350,000; if we assume that we convince 30% of our collective mailing lists to switch to our telecom provider within the next 18 months; if we assume that the average domestic bill is €35per month...

Then in 18 months time we would have a monthly income of €551,250, that’s €6,615,000 per year...

So that’s income from Sponsorship, interest on deposits, and affinity schemes, which when taken together have serious earning potential. And we haven't sold a single extra ticket....


We are all of us running around looking for the secret millionaire angel, operating small friends and patrons schemes - but alone we are too small to attract the serious donation. Together we can put in place a National Endowment for the Art of Theatre Trust Fund and we can actively pursue those elusive millionaires to leave some money in their will until over time we have an a trust dedicated to the art of theatre. It's not that hard to convince a wealthy actor to assign their back end rights in one movie for the good of all actors in Ireland. (The Screen Actors Guild of America and British already operate such funds – usually for pension purposes).

I’ve outlined four simple strategies (and by the way I’ve spoken to a number of Sponsorship Brand Managers, Financial Managers, and Affinity Scheme Operators and they have all agreed that there is no reason why this couldn’t work – but that it requires the sector, that’s all of us, to act together) that can use leverage the power of the sheer size of the theatre sector to generate multiple revenue streams over time.

Of course there are problems with all of this and of course the devil is in the detail.

But to answer the question what have we have built over the years is: we have put in place the elements of an infrastructure with enormous earning potential and the capacity to work with the funding agents as equals and not as dependents; an infrastructure that is flexible and resilient. All we have to do is join up the dots and realise that our venue, our company, and our talent is a part of a very powerful system. If we look out from our own anxious and nervous positions and realise what we can achieve collectively we can create work rather than shedding it and we can build a resilient industry in which there is room for all of us.

All of this has to happen now before a substantial part of the existing infrastructure is dismantled.