Monday, April 2, 2012

A Business Plan for the Arts? Should we even Bother

"The Avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote" - Babylon 5

I was looking at the job description for Director of Theatre Forum recently and I began to think about the purpose of these organisations. This, combined with this article from the Irish examiner, prompted this post.

OK, so here are some of the questions: what is the future of the theatre sector in Ireland in a political culture committed to a strategy of continual cuts? What is its future in a society in which rising unemployment and declining wage levels have consumed the greater part of all disposable income? What is its future in a country where an arts based education has never been on the table for serious discussion?

In short what is its future when the traditional sources of income (funding and box office) are both being squeezed and its support base is being reduced by short-sighted educational and arts policies?

The size of the theatre industry - and with it the range and type of imaginations available - is being reduced. It will shrink around the five major clients and it is possible that those clients will be seriously affected in a couple of years.

During the years of growth in Arts Funding the support organisations were mandated to provide information and resources that would professionalise the industry and give it a "voice". During the first years of the cuts the the purpose of the support organisations began to change, to refocus on lobbying, on making the case for the arts. The Campaign for the Arts ran a strong campaign: the arguments were sound, the lobbying was intensive, the cuts continued.

The NCFA argument was based on the "multiplier effect". The straightforward, essentially Keynesian, argument that investment (state spending) on the arts created wealth, provided employment, consumed resources, pushed demand. This is a "demand side" argument: investment stimulates demand, pushes growth. Its a good argument. Unfortunately it never had a snowball's chance in hell.

We live in an economic culture dominated by "supply side" economics - a school of thought beloved of Reagan, Thatcher, the Republican party and others. You get the picture. Trying to win a demand side argument in a supply side culture is a sectarian struggle. I'm reminded of a line from the Rat in The Skull that went something like " ...two fellas in a ditch clubbing each other till one of them gave up and died". 

The funding argument as it is currently formulated cannot be won because of fundamental differences between the suppliers and the consumers of funding. Cutting state support is an article of faith.

So what is the role of the support organisations?  What use is their advice and drive for professionalism when we can no longer afford to be "professional" and when they themselves will be in line for cuts sooner or later?

In terms of the theatre industry, Theatre Forum in collaboration with its members and the NCFA  needs to address and  answer these questions, needs to formulate strategies based on those answers, and needs to support the implementation of those strategies.

In short, I would argue that the industry as a whole needs a new business plan - and  Theatre Forum is ideally positioned to deliver that plan.

It is possible that when we look a the industry in its entirety, as if it was one large corporation, we may find that it just doesn't make financial sense and that all of these cuts are the only way forward. Or we may find that the industry - as a whole - is way more powerful and profitable than any arrangement of discrete, small, underfunded companies. That a large co-ordinated self managed industry is capable of creating not just a diversity of voice and expression but capable of generating properties with significant profit potential, reinvesting that profit and returning investment directly to the key investor - the tax payer.

If an industry is to survive we need to stop talking about art and artists and start building a context in which a artists can create and make a living. 

Over the years the industry paradigm was to make  funding strategies and decisions focused on the quality of the art and the artists (without ever providing a set of criteria against which the quality could be measured). Again, this is not a criticism - the "quality" of art is very hard to systematically describe and usually comes down to a personal opinion or preference. However, in favoring individual artists or specific endeavours they failed to build a sustainable industry, failed to even understand the nature of such an industry.

On the other side of the coin those of us working in the industry ( and I include myself in this) were very concerned with process - the right way of doing it. Whether it was the right way to rehearse or - when the emphasis moved on to administration - the right kind of company to have or the right way to put on a show. This concern with doing it the right way was reinforced by the funding strategies (if you were funded you were doing something right), but it meant that we too were not concerned with building an industry that could sustain us.

I would argue that we all became so concerned with creating the right kind of art that we failed to attend to the context in which that art was being made.

You can solve a problem by tinkering with the innards (creating new funding tools) or by examining the context - there may be nothing wrong with your car, its the potholes in the road causing the problem.

There will be less and less money available from the traditional sources over the coming years. That's a fact. No funding tool will create more money. So how do we create a sustainable industry when the traditional source of investment is drying up. That's the problem. That's the challenge. We have to solve it in the language and within the parameters of the dominant economic ideology.

I never made the application to Theatre Forum. I missed the deadline.