Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Arts Act - For God's Sake Burn it Down

I mentioned in my last post that the Arts Act needed to be rewritten. It needs to be rewritten because its the single biggest obstacle to the development of a vibrant and sustainable cultural space. It is narrow, patronising and oppressive. The next arts act must be drafted by a wide constituency  - including  people who work in the arts and the cultural industries - if it is to be fit for purpose in this century. 

You see every strategy or policy document that comes out of the Arts Council or out of any local authority Arts Office is shaped and coloured by the Arts Act, which presupposes that the vast majority of the audience and the artists are disinterested, uneducated and substandard. The language of the act also implies that there are a privileged few (those who wrote the act and their descendants I assume) who are burdened with the task of elevating the majority. 

But what does it actually say? Well the vast majority of words are spent in describing what the arts council is, how it employs people and how it pays them (really the act is mostly a scope document), but if we strip away all of that we're left with very little.

The objectives and purpose of the council (which the Arts Act establishes) have been constant since 1951:
"(a) Stimulating public interest in the arts or
(b) Promoting knowledge, appreciation or practice of the arts, or
(c) Improving standards in the arts, or
(d) Otherwise assisting in the development or advancement of the arts"

The “Arts” means "any creative or interpretative expression (whether traditional or contemporary) in whatever form, and includes, in particular, visual arts, theatre, literature, music, dance, opera, film, circus and architecture, and includes any medium when used for those purposes” 

So whats wrong with this picture. None of the acts contain an explicit definition of what Art is, a clear statement of why it is  important, or a reason why it should be considered a suitable object for state funding. Rather the logic remains implicit, and the arts are defined as essentially problematic and in need of an audience, education and general improvement.  This has remained consistent since 1951. 

There is a disturbing lack of intellectual clarity in the language. Are we concerned with Art or with Creativity? Is a computer game creative? For that matter is the creation of any piece of software? Is journalism an interpretative act?  And why has design dropped off the list of Arts? And why is circus suddenly on the list? At what point is an extension to a house considered artistic and worthy of support. Is Riverdance a piece of art? If U2 reincorporated as a non-profit distributing company would they then qualify for arts council support? And when we say “any creative or interpretative expression” do we include mediocre expressions? How do we decide what is and is not mediocre? (And don't get me started on the fact that the act considers interpretative expression to be art but the revenue will not extend tax exemption to interpretative artists).

This wide definition of the Arts assumes that  the words “Culture”, “Arts”, and “Creativity”, are interchangeable and suggests a misplaced belief that they are “universal”,  and “timeless” as opposed to existing in constant flux with the society.  It also acts as a catch all to avoid offending or excluding anybody; but while it acknowledges creativity everywhere it goes on to narrow the spectrum by saying “in particular, visual arts, theatre, literature, music, dance, opera, film, circus and architecture”, bringing us back to the original list set out in 1951 with the addition of film and circus.

If the arts are “any creative or interpretative expression” and we do not include any objective criteria for quality evaluation (which is in itself fraught with difficulty) how then are we to identify that which should be funded? What happens is that we exclude from the frame all “creative or interpretative expression” that does not require funding (house extensions, U2, Riverdance) and so the key definition of the arts is those activities which require funding. Essentially the continuing crisis of funding is defined into existence. The funding is predicated not on the Art or the Creativity or the Culture but on the inability of some Arts/Culture/Creativity to directly create wealth in the short term (which, by the way, is an economic phenomenon known as "cost disease" and not the result of bad art, poor management or marketing).

From one point of view this is a non-point. Why would we fund it if it didn’t need funding? But behind it lies a more relevant truth. In defining the arts in this way, creating a category of arts that constantly require state funding we fail to grasp the totality of the industry and the relationships between the many parts. We build an assumption into policy that Culture and Art require funding, but that Industry and Creativity do not. Which, of course is a lie, as industry is funded to the hilt through direct and indirect supports (grants, tax relief, low minimum wage, job bridge, bailouts, infrastructure etc.).

But lets consider the assumptions underlying the four objectives:
"Stimulating public interest in the arts" suggests that public interest is low and needs to be stimulated. The arts are perceived as separate from the general public - essentially a consumer model of cultural impact.

"Promoting knowledge, appreciation or practice of the arts" suggests that one social group has the knowledge and appreciation and should share that with the “public” mentioned in the first item - a very elitist view of the arts. I have to ask, is "practice" a function of "knowledge and appreciation"? Also promote practice among whom? The public? The artists. Does practice belong in this sentence? 

"Improving standards in the arts", suggests that standards are low - but measured against what benchmark, in what context and by what criteria? And what standards are we talking about? Standards of conception? Of imagination? Of execution? Living? Reward?

"Otherwise assisting in the development or advancement of the arts" is a catch all phrase to allow for activities not captured in the previous three; but what kind of development or advancement are we talking about? Development and advancement toward what end?

Most important of all is that the first three core objectives are essentially educational: if you want to stimulate interest in anything then you educate, if you want to promote knowledge, appreciation or practice then you educate, and if you want to improve standards then you educate.

The Arts Act as it stands is more an Arts Education Act than anything else and those objectives should form part of the Education remit. Perhaps this made sense in the 1950's but today Irish art and culture is internationally acclaimed (not all of it and not all the time but that is normal).  The output of our cultural sector stands comparison with the best in the world. What artists do not need, what the cultural sector does not need, is a patronising and outdated Act that addresses a tiny part of the arts equation, and reflects a society where a privileged few decide what is good for the rest. What we do need is an act that clearly defines the place of creativity in the wider society, understands the contribution it makes to that society and to the economy, acknowledges the quality and potential, and creates opportunity for expression and development. What is needed is vision.

In fairness the last Arts Council strategic review, Inspiring Prospects, acknowledges the constraints but rather than recommending the fundamental change to the founding legislation which is so necessary,  the document looks inward, recommending changes within itself and the current relationships within the sector. (It also uses the word "should" far too often).

It seems to me that I'm always giving out and never saying what should be done. In acknowledgement of this compare for yourselves the narrow, constraining and patronising language of the Arts Act with the Creative Australia document which states:  

"Culture is created by us and defines us. It is the embodiment of the distinctive values, traditions and beliefs that make being Australian in the 21st century unique—democratic, diverse, adaptive and grounded in one of the world’s oldest living civilisations.
Australian culture has a firm base in heritage and tradition. It is also dynamic, evolving in response to a changing world and the increasing diversity, in all forms, of those who call this country home.
Culture is expressed in many ways—through the way we live, speak, conduct public life, relate to others, celebrate, remember the past, entertain ourselves and imagine the future. In sum, this captures the Australian spirit—a distinctive way of being that others recognise. Australian identity has a common core, but is not singular. Rather it is like a constellation, greater than the sum of its parts.
Culture is more than the arts, but the arts play a unique and central role in its development and expression.Creative Australia addresses the central role of the arts, heritage and creative industries in cultural expression and includes the individuals, enterprises and organisations engaged. This policy aims to enhance their special and evolving place in Australian life.
Creative Australia also articulates the aspirations of artists, citizens and the community, and the paths to agreed goals. It responds strategically to the economic and social challenges that the next decade of the 21stcentury is likely to present.
Creative Australia is informed by the belief that a creative nation is a productive nation in the fullest sense of the word—empathic, respectful, imaginative, industrious, adaptive, open and successful."

Australia has its problems; but that is an inspiring and intelligent statement. We could do with a bit of that here. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Inspiring Prospects - From Funded by the Arts Council to Developed by the Arts Council

The document, Inspiring Prospects,  published by the Arts Council earlier this year. has identified the necessity of moving from being a funding agency to a development agency. I would wholeheartedly agree. Ireland - in general - is very poor at development in all areas. I welcome this shift in focus, but we need to analyse it. Lets' be honest,  with the council on the back foot financially it would be very easy to see this statement as a necessary cover-up: we can't afford to fund anything so lets say we're in development. (I remember a very senior local authority person at a board meeting for an arts organisation some years ago, when he finally realised that the organisation actually had no money, suggest "could we not do a few community projects? You know, they cost nothing and you get a load of people involved".  Let's hope we're not heading for that kind of development.)

The document uses the terms  ‘Development’ and the ‘Public Good’ but does not really explain what they mean by these terms (sure we all know what they mean, don't we?). When we talk about development are we talking about the development of the audience (a much needed increase in market size) or are we talking about the development of artists (what kind of development and how do we achieve it?), or are we talking about the development of the arts sector, (transforming it from a community of occasionally shared interests into a viable Cultural Industry?) And of course we have to ask, development to what end?

And how do we measure the impact of what we do on the ‘Public Good’? This is a real question and a real economic conundrum– what are the metrics and the methods? There are numerous ways of assessing the value of the Public Good, but they are complex, time consuming and not all are in agreement. (As an aside, the ‘Public Good’ concept does not carry much sway in neo-liberal economic ideology). What we can say is that The Public Good will not be significantly impacted for at least a decade, so are we to divert limited resources to a ten year longitudinal study and expect the political system to wait for those results?

A shift from funding to development can be compared to a losing team switching from an offensive to a defensive strategy when the real issue is they shouldn't be playing the game at all and they certainly shouldn't be on that pitch. In other words if we are to move to development then the wider context of the arts needs to change and not just the intent and funding tools of an already hard pressed Arts Council.

The arts are facing a raft of challenges created by the alleged decline in audiences, by new technologies, by rising costs, and by shifts in economic ideologies; these challenges demand a reappraisal of the role of the arts in our society, of the relationship between the arts and the state (and the economy) and an understanding of the changing intellectual framework in which the debate on the arts and “the cultural industries” is carried on. We really don't need to be rearranging the deck chairs again. 

The challenges facing the Council and the arts community at this time are far greater than those brought about by the decline in what was – even at its height – a below par level of state funding. The challenges are not just a function of how much money the council has to disburse but are embedded in the legislative framework (the arts act really needs to be rewritten and made fit for purpose), the tax environment, the funding sources and models, the simple mathematics of market size, and the wider political “culture” of state funding that has created a ghetto of grant dependent, exclusive, high art categories and has no real faith in, or understanding of, the inherent value or the social function of the arts.

(It's been suggested to me over the last few months that the problem is further exacerbated by a lack of understanding and belief in - at the most senior levels - the artists and the art produced - but that's another story).

If the arts council is to become a development organisation then we need to ask what will it develop, and at what point the development becomes sustainable? 

This shift toward development is informed (as nearly everything is) by the Arts Act, in particular the phrases “stimulating public interest in the arts, promoting knowledge, appreciation or practice of the arts, or improving standards in the arts”.  But all of these are educational activities and really should be returned to that portfolio at the earliest opportunity. Even if the Arts Council ceased funding all of its clients and tried to run programmes to meet these objectives they would have very little impact without the co-operation and integration of the educational system (which is also under enormous pressure).

I would agree that audience development based on community involvement is an essential component of any plan but audience and arts production must be developed together and that is one of the big challenges. There is no future in developing an audience for a product, service or experience that either does not exist or cannot attract and retain an audience, and conversely there is no point in developing a product, service or experience for which there is no audience.  The dependency model of state funding deployed over the last twenty years has created a situation for the cultural industries where their principal customer is the Arts Council, and their efforts are all turned toward winning that customer, despite its ever-decreasing purchasing power. The side effect of this is that the cultural industries have put less time into developing and working with their audience than they have into creating approved art. 

The Council, the Department, the Government and the Cultural Industries must work toward creating new, real sources of funding if investment strategies and behaviours are to be changed, but we need to acknowledge that the council engages in funding and not investment (although that can change). We also need to acknowledge that everything in Ireland is funded – either through direct state spending or soft loans, tax relief, low corporate tax rates, FDI support, bailouts, underwriting and other incentives. The availability of funding is not really the issue, it is the availability of multiple sources, channels and forms of potential funding that effectively distribute risk and can maximize potential returns that need to be addressed. (There are numerous effective ideas emerging from the UK and from Horizon 2020 to do with tax relief, incentives, debt underwriting and risk management all of which should be factored into any model of development).

For example, it should be possible for an arts project to be debt financed with that debt underwritten by the arts council over several years, and if funded by the Council then the council should share in the rewards if that project is commercially successful.

The problem with the current arts funding model is that money is perceived to leave the government coffers and never come back. It does of course come back in direct and (punitive) indirect taxation but optics are everything. For example the €12 Billion corporate tax that Apple managed to avoid paying is not seen as funding - but that is precisely what it is.  A development approach needs to understand the many, many ways that funding can be accessed. 

It is a commonplace of contemporary cultural economics that commercial and subsidised are not two opposing forces but opposite ends of a continuum. We need to make it easy for artists to travel along that continuum (they certainly can't make a living in the subsidised sector), and we need to realize that the "commercial" artist has the right to fail and the non-commercial artist has the right to make money. As a development agency the Arts Council can either  develop a type of work that it likes and approves of or it can develop an industry in which many permutations and possibilities thrive, and in which the risks of failure are effectively managed.

As a final note it is important to say first that the Arts have always been undervalued in Ireland, and second that we need to stop apologizing for the rising costs of the arts – it is in their economic nature, not a function of greed or mismanagement.

In summary I would say that the future of the cultural industries – of the Arts in Ireland - depends on our ability to create and manage multiple sources of funding and on our ability to create wealth from that which is funded.  That is what a development agency does.  Let the artists get on with the art.

Friday, May 9, 2014

You Can't Fund Art and You Can't Fund Artists

OK. Lets consider the idea of the subsidised arts for a moment, and lets consider the implications of the use of the words "art" and "artist".

Funding Art - that is committing money up front in the belief that the eventual product will be Art is perhaps the highest risk use of public money you can think of. Why? Because there is no guarantee that what will be created with that public money will be Art. Further, before a piece of work can be designated Art , a whole bunch of people have to agree that it is Art - and they can't agree if it doesn't already exist.  You can't decide on Art in advance. So really, you can't actually fund art, because art only - hopefully - exists at the end of a process. Yes, you can invest in art (ask Saatchi), but again the art has to exist before you can do that. 

The same logic applies to artists. For a person to be designated an artist they must have a body of work behind them,  and a whole bunch of people have to agree that that persons work contains sufficient Art for them to be considered an Artist.

So you see the problem? If you talk about Arts and Artists as the object of funding, then logic immediately dictates that you allocate the lions share of your resources to established work and individuals with an existing reputation. Development, the life blood of any organisation or industry, becomes less important because new work and new people - by definition - cannot be considered art or artists and are therefore not suitable objects for arts funding.  

Yes, you can argue that the "arts" is different to "Art" and an "artist" is different to an "Artist" but the words are the same, and confusion will, and does, ensue.  Of course the other real problem is that the status of art and artist are both entirely matters of opinion.  One person, or activity or organisation gets funded because another person or group of people like it - or worse, thinks that they should like it. 

I would suggest that we need to move out of this logical and semantical dilemma by admitting to ourselves that art is not a process its a product and we don't start as artists we become artists (perhaps more accurate to say that we move in and out of an Artistic state), and that Art is never, ever a guaranteed outcome. 

So, what is it that we want as a result of this funding? And if we can't fund art, what is it that we want to fund?  Creativity? But creativity in what and for who? 

Maybe, if we stop using the words art and artist when we talk about funding we might discover a better way of using that funding. A way to support a sustainable environment that can devlop creativity and maybe produce some new art along the way.

So, what do we all think?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Get Some In! The Hunt for an Audience

I've been hearing for a while now that a lot of companies and organisations are feeling a lot of pressure to justify their existence in terms of audience numbers. A pressue manifesting inself under the rubric of Audience Development.

I'm a great believer in audiences: one of those people who feel that the work is almost pointless without an audience. However, can any of the organistaions currently feeling this pressure actually develop the audience, actually make it bigger?

If you look at the audience statistics for live theatre in Ireland, the UK, the US, Canada and Europe (in general) a remarkable pattern emerges. On average, accross all these territories, the theatre audience comes in at about 20% of the population. There are of course highs and lows but the standard deviation is not particularly significant. More importantly this rate has been fairly consistent over time.

When you see a pattern like that you realise that what you're looking at is a "base rate". There are a couple of important things about a base rate: there may be variations in any given time period but the tendency is for the figure to return to that rate. In other words about 20% of the population attends theatre and that's it. No ammount of marketing strategies or audience development programmes will boost that in any significant way. True, an effective marketing campaign or development programme may boost a particular organisations market share (they get more of the 20% than another organisation, which means of course that the other organisation loses market share) but all the shows are fighting each other for a share of that market.

What we can do is shift our focus from increasing the audience to increasing repeat business. We can have very little impact on the base rate but we can influence and affect the number of times an audience member comes back to us. Repeat business is about the quality of the experience; and quality of experience is only partly about "how good" the show is. Its about how a person is welcomed into the theatre, its about the atmosphere once they're in, about the facilities, its about the quality and quantity of the communication with them, and its about what happens when the show is over. Its about inclusion and belonging. By all means lets have a small audience so long as we have a good relationship with them and so long as they come back again and again. As Anne Bogart says, we must tend the audience.

Can the base rate be shifted upwards. Probably, if we knew what was driving it. It's not been driven by marketing or by outreach or by development programmes. Common sense would suggest that the base rate is driven by education, by accessibility, social class, and income levels. If you want to make the base rate grow then you need to address these areas across the whole of government - and that is out of the hands of the individual organisations.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Assessing the Abbey, Branding, Joss Wheedon and The Need for Soul

Some years ago the great Tom Coughlan, pipe in hand and smile on his face as always, told me his plan to revitalise the theatre industry in Ireland (the perennial problem). Let the Arts Council give a shed load of money to Saatchi and Saatchi to run a twelve month campaign selling the "idea" of theatre to the general public. Problem solved.

Tom is a hard man to disagree with so I nodded but secretly thought it was a bit simplistic and off the point.

The recent Abbey debacle over assessment brought Tom back to mind. Before I go any further let me say that, in my opinion, this debacle is precisely that: neither party should have suggested or agreed to an outmoded, discredited and secretive process; the assessment should have been contextualised by extending it to all other major clients; the media shouldn't have allowed themselves to be played the way they were and we could have done with a bit less bandwagoning.

I'm also a part time conspiracy theorist so forgive me for suggesting that  - from a certain point of view - the whole thing smells like a plan to discredit Senator MacConghaile and justify further funding "rationalisations" coming down the track.

Personally I've seen some great shows in the Abbey and some absolute shit (in my opinion), but I've had the same experience everywhere. The worst show of the last twelve months was an RSC production in Stratford. But that's the nature of the process - win some, lose some: fail again, fail better.

As I mulled all this over beneath the naked swinging lightbulb of my conspiracy chamber deep in the recesses of my mind I suddenly realised that Tom Coughlan had hit upon a great Truth.

It seems to me, having spent a year in the company of people with no professional involvement in theatre,  that from their point of view there is no "theatre experience" in this country. Don't get me wrong, there are theatres and theatre companies, productions and personalities and artists, but they don't add up to anything coherent, greater than the individual parts. There's no sense of an "experience" that exists over and above any given production.

Tom would have said there's no Brand. And I think he might be right.

Brands and Branding can sometimes be thought of as dirty words, a trick employed by rapacious  corporations. But a brand doesn't work if you think its something you can put on like a ready to wear suit. The best brands emerge from a deep understanding of the emotional connection between you and  the people you engage with, they emerge from passion and focus and creativity. They change your behaviour and they change the way you think, they are an expression of vision, belief and perception that exist over and above, independently of, any particular manifestation.

Think about Apple.

Apple is bigger and more significant than any of its constantly replaced and upgraded products. The iPhone, the iPad, the iMac are - more than anything else - proof, talismans if you will, that you are a particular kind of person. Like many people I have done the pilgrimage to the Apple store in New York. Not to buy anything. Just to experience it.

A brand is an experience. It is something that people belong to; it expresses and defines us and - and at its best - it is something that is loved passionately. If Apple produce a dodgy product we forgive them and defend them against all critics (although if we get a slate of dodgy products we lose faith, we stumble with them, and the brand begins to break).

So, does theatre in Ireland, not any particular instance of it but THEATRE, have a brand identity? Or is it just a random dispersal of places and events, silos ultimately, manifesting nothing beyond themselves.

A brand exists when the experience takes precedence over the thing. When the experience, the emotional investment, the relationship, of being at the theatre (not at a particular place to see a particular company) takes precedence over the strength or weaknesses of the specific production, we have a brand; we have a culture.

In the absence of that we have a  collection of random, discrete events expressing only themselves for their brief hour upon the stage. We have marks out of five and the assessment of the Abbey.

A brand is a manifestation of soul, an expression of purpose and community. I would suggest that the absence of brand is a hallmark of society, not just theatre. When our national leaders run around desperately trying to "rebrand" Limerick and the like they are expressing a desperate national need to find a soul again, to find purpose and community.

As one of my heroes, Joss Wheedon, remarked in an interview, "You can't make something that people like. You have to make something they love. And they have so much love to give".

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Limerick: ask the question.

The recent controversy emerging from Limerick City of Culture stems from that unresolved debate on the function and purpose of culture and the arts industry: who is it all for?

There would be no controversy if the answer to the question "who is this for" was made and given clearly and unambiguously at the start of the process.

Is the City of Culture for the people of Limerick? A year long initiative to improve the quality of life.

Is it for the artists of Limerick? An opportunity to develop and create work.

Is it a commercial opportunity? A chance to use culture and the creative arts to rebrand the city internationally, attract some tourists and some FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) and boost the local economy.

These objectives are not mutually exclusive but thier prioritisation needs to be clear from the outset and all the stakeholders need to understand and AGREE  on it.

Shared vision. Clear objectives. Agreed outcomes.

I suspect that this open and frank conversation did not happen in the first phase of the project. Which is why the stakeholders are now viewing each other with suspicion and pulling the project in opposing directions.

(What's most shocking is that you would expect a city council to be up to speed on best practice in project management. Clearly they're not.)

If this assessment is correct, that the important conversation did not take place at the outset, this begs the question, "why not?"

There are numerous reasons we don't have frank and open conversations at the start of any relationship - business, personal or otherwise. The reasons are nearly always a mixture of fear and contempt. Harsh words, but reflect on them for a moment, and consider the words that have been used by all sides over the last few days.

What the City of Culture controversy has highlighted is a national, systemic and cultural problem: we have no shared vision of our society that can incorporate the needs, skills and aspirations of all stakeholders. We have no common language nor mutual respect and the default mode of engagement is how we can exploit the other. 

With regards to the Limerick situation no amount of resignations, reappointments or apologies will mend the situation. It needs an intervention: everyone, EVERYONE, needs to talk about Art.