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.