Tuesday, July 24, 2012

So thats where the money is.

A friend of mine informed me of two new Arts Council inititiatives recently. Both were built around donations. The smaller one offers to add 50% of the value of what you raise and the bigger one, called Raise,  offers mentorship to large organisations to help them implement an effective fundraising campaign. This focus on alternative sources of income is to be welcomed.

We all know how hard it is to raise a donor base and sponsorship in this country, so have they got the strategy right? Will theses schemes make it easier for organisations to raise money? Of course they won't.


Because the incentive is in the wrong place. We don't have a culture of giving because the giver is not encouraged or supported in the giving: there are no tax breaks for charitable donations that can compare with international best practice or that can compete with the available business investment opportunities.

I remember sitting down with a very qualified prospect a couple of years ago while trying to build a donor base for GĂșna Nua. The guy owned a successful, medium sized business in management training, was a friend of the family, and loved theatre. I'd finished my training with Tom Suddes and I made a good presentation and a clear ask. He considered and said "I spend about a €1000 a year on tickets. So does my wife. I pay a lot of tax, some of which makes its way to the arts. And you want me to give you more money? Why? I think what you do is great, but why?"

The mad thing is that if I was looking for money to start a business then the answer to his question would be that even if the business flops you'll get most of your money back within three years in tax breaks. If I'd been able to make that answer then I'm pretty sure I'd have walked out of his office with a cheque in my hand.

If you'll excuse a small digression I want to quote from an Arts Council Newsletter introducing the Raise programme: "Income from fundraising by arts organisations in Ireland is less than 3 percent of total income.  This is a much lower ratio than in other countries such as Britain or Australia, where arts organisations secure up to a third of their revenue from fundraising". It's probably just me but the tone of this seems to suggest that the arts organisations in Ireland have been very bold, and haven't been working as hard as they should, but now that the council knows what is going on in the UK and Australia we wont be allowed to get away with it any more. I don't think this tone is deliberate or conscious. I just think that there is a cultural tendency to blame somebody (usually the wrong person, and usually the person at the bottom of the decision making ladder), rather than admit that the system is flawed or broken or whatever.  At no point in the Arts Council news letter on fundraising does it mention the fact that the tax regime in both the UK and Australia - and particularly in the US supports and encourages donations.  It also doesn't mention that both the UK and Australia have larger populations and significantly larger GDPs - essentially they are bigger (and incentivised) markets. If a comparison is to be meaningful then we need to compare like with like.

The Arts Council newsletter does not acknowledge that most Arts Organisations have been working extremely hard for many years with various levels of success to raise sponsorship and donations, and that those organisations are fully aware of the obstacles to successful fundraising. It is worth bearing in mind that in the three years, 2005 -2008, The Abbey Theatre - one of the largest cultural institutions in the country with a highly skilled and experienced staff raised a total of €189,768 (about €63,000 per year on average). This is not an indictment of the Abbey's fundraising abilities, but a very clear indication of the level of interest in donating to the arts.

It doesn't matter how many schemes are run to improve the sales techniques of the donation hunters, unless the tax regulations are changed to support and incentivise charitable giving, these schemes will have minimum impact. Its basic sales: do not try to sell something to somebody who is not predisposed at a number of key levels to buy.

All I'm saying is that these schemes are great, but without changes in the tax environment they incentivise the seller and not the buyer. The net result of theses schemes will probably be a number of already overworked arts managers making massive, well planned efforts to score money that actually isn't available, and probably being penalised by the Arts Council for failing.

But c'mon, John, there's no way the tax regulations are going to change. Really? Why not? Why can't the arts avail of the same kind of tax incentives as film or small businesses? Well, we don't want a lot of people avoiding tax by hiding their money in the arts. But isn't that exactly what they do in business and film? Ah, yes, but, investment in business and film results in net employment and a significant tax take. Okay, but aren't the arts one of the most labour intensive activities available and - given their current VAT status - wont they produce a bigger tax yield?

I haven't heard an argument against changing the tax regulations governing charitable donations that was not based on ideology, prejudice or fear.  There is no real reason for the Arts in Ireland not to have the same kind of tax incentives supporting charitable donations as prevail in other countries. Put the incentives in place and the money will start to move.

But it will just take too long! And this is a serious problem. There will be more Arts Cuts in the next budget, and in terms of theatre, that tiny constellation of companies orbiting the big five will start to burn out. When you watch the bullish Michael Colgan unable to defend Arts Funding in the face of the visceral "do we save a life or do we watch a play" argument you realise that the big five will be in danger eventually as well. What's important to remember is that these cuts are mostly driven by ideology, not by economics or accounting.

So what to do. OK, here's a rediculous idea. Start a theatre investment fund.  Raise say, €5 million  from some people with real money. Put that money into a medium risk fund yielding 4% per annum. (which is about what these investors would get  if they sheltered the money offshore). In three years that fund is worth €5, 624,320. The investor's money is safe and they get it back with a small profit if they want it back at the end of the three year period. They might not want it back because its performing as well there as anywhere else in the current climate.

Now, what this fund does is,  it goes to a bank and in year one it borrows €1,000,000 and invests it in theatre production. The loan is guaranteed by the fund. There is one stipulation, and that is that whatever number of shows the fund invests in it must make its money back and show a small overall profit. Let's be optimistic and say that it makes a 20% profit on the year. It pays back the bank €1,040,000 and puts the remaining profit, €160,000 into the fund. It repeats this for all three years and the fund is worth €6,123,776.

You can increase the size of the original fund depending on the required final yield.

But surely this is pure fantasy? is it any more fantastical than expecting the Abbey to raise over  €3million a year in donations and sponsorships when they couldn't raise €200k over three years outside of a recession? Is it any more fantastical than expecting the arts industry to replace the lost millions with a potential donor base coping with higher taxes, lower incomes and negative equity?

Do we really think that there are enough people in the country earning in excess of €200,000 a year able and willing to donate to the arts in such a quantity as to support the whole industry?

Of course there isn't, and Oh gosh look, rather than focusing our attention on changing the context in which we work so that a stable sustainable industry can be built, we're back fighting each other again for limited resources. 

I look forward to your thoughts.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

So where is the money?

I was really pleased by the reaction to my last post, so thank you to everybody who commented on it on Facebook. Only one person has left a comment on the blog so far, so please feel free to leave comments here this time. There were negative comments but I had to search for them and I wish they'd been left on the blog. An interesting conversation could have ensued. One prevailing complaint was that I was just stating the obvious: that we had to look for money somewhere else, but I wasn't saying where we should go to look for that money. I'll try to answer this.

So, now that the Arts Council has fulfilled the logic of numbers set out by John O'Kane in Wexford in 2008 and admitted that it will fund only five clients where does that leave everybody else? (Incidentally at least three of those clients had better start thinking about a succession policy or they too could suffer the cut).

Anyway, on to the business of this blog: where is the money. The simplest model is the commercial one. Calculate your potential box office income. Set your budget at no greater than 50% of that figure. Raise that amount in advance. Raise it from family, friends or friends of family. At 50% of potential income there's a good chance they'll make all or most of their money back. If your box office exceeds 50% of potential income they'll make a profit. You will need to prepare an investment prospectus for them, so check out this link. Remember that these people are investing, not donating. They are underwriting the cost of your production and they expect to be paid back so they have first call on the box office income. However, If you're playing a 100 seat theatre for 2 weeks you can't raise a lot of money (probably about €9,000). Spend it wisely and have a smart marketing plan in place. Remember your choice of show and cast is part of that marketing plan (At the very least make sure you read the Arts Attendance in Ireland report).

However, if you are a charity, you can't look for investment. You can look for donations. Under Irish tax regulations at present if a PAYE worker gives you a donation they get...nothing. You can apply to the revenue and they will top up the donation based on the donors higher rate of tax. A self employed person can apply for a rebate based on their higher rate of tax. Compare this to the US where every donor can reduce their taxable income by the amount donated, or the UK where a theatre investor can write off the gains on one show against the losses on another. Also in Ireland an individual can invest in a start up business and claim 41% back and if the company fails to show a profit after 3 years they can sell their shares back to the company at a discount and claim a capital gains loss. It seems to be that the tax regulations are heavily weighted against charitable donors. Lobbying for change on this would benefit us greatly.

It's also worth thinking about how much you want to raise from donations and how much work you can put into it and - most importantly - who you can ask. Lets say you want to raise €20,000 in donations. You set a target of 40 people at €500 a head. Consider this: a PAYE worker on €100,000 is taking home, after taxes and charges, just over a €1000 per week. Factor in living expenses commensurate with their income (and a little bit of negative equity)  and that person does not have €500 to give to you (They might have it there was some real tax benefit to them). So you could reduce the amount you ask for and increase the number of people you ask but this increases the time and the cost of the fundraising. You could target people  in the €200,000 per anum bracket but do you have ready access to them? Bear this in mind as well: according to The Arts Attendance in Ireland report mentioned above there are only 484,000 arts attendees in Dublin. Your question now is how many of these are sympathetic to theatre and how many are in a relevant income bracket. You'll probably find that the people who could donate to you have already been recruited by the major institutions. Again the market is small and the numbers stacked against us. Without meaningful tax incentives the donation windfall will remain elusive.

So what about sponsorship? The brand managers talk a lot about shared values. This is important. How does your event, your brand support theirs. Remember that what you are selling to the sponsor is your audience. Not your event, your audience. So you need to know your audience and how you intend to reach them. The more focused your demographic and sales channels are the better chance you have.

I've spent a lot of time looking for sponsorship over the years and the big question is how much can i ask for? Usually we ask for too much and that's the end of the conversation. It used to be the case in the US that it was calculated on an 8/10 ratio. That was $8 for every 10 audience members. That works out at about €6.40. So if you're playing a 100 seat theatre for two weeks that gives you an ask of about €760. Which, in my experience is about right. Bear in mind that this is not worth your while or theirs. Also bear in mind that a Dublin festival with a large title sponsor only gets €10,000 in cash so you can see the figures are not far off. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  Remember as well that the real value of a sponsor is the marketing support they bring to the sponsorship which will boost your box office making the project more attractive to investors.

There is of course corporate philanthropy which is different from sponsorship (I think a lot of people in Ireland confuse these two).  Corporate philanthropy is a long game built on smart networking and personal relationships.

So, where is the money? What lessons can we learn? On the commercial model we need to ensure that audience capacity is high (about 400 seats minimum), the run is about four weeks and the recurring costs are kept low ( i.e. small cast and crew). Always, always pay back the investor. It doesn't matter if the show is a box office flop and you made no money; if you paid back the investors then you can can ask them to invest again.

On sponsorship, size is also important and we need to remember that what we are selling is our audience so we need as much accurate information on that audience as we can get. Also the real value of sponsorship is the marketing support provided.

On donations we need to remember that the numbers are working against us. Without a change in the tax regulations there is no incentive for small, significant donations. We have to target high net worth individuals and for most of us that's a long game and a lot of networking. How many of us know fifty people willing to give us a grand each?

A final word on crowd funding. It takes a lot of careful planning. To my knowledge the biggest amount for theatre raised on FundIt was €15,000 for Misterman. And that had Cillian Murphy in it. A brilliant marketing decision.

So that's my experience. Think big. Think of the audience. Plan your networking and then work that network. Prepare for a long game. Work out the mix. Demand a change in the tax regime. Always pay back your investors.

What do you think?

There is another aspect to this question of where the money is. Ireland has a population about the same as greater Birmingham. Just over half of the population are  "regular" (not less than once a year) arts attenders; 1.3million people claim to have attended a play not less than once a year, and Dublin has a total of 484,000 regular arts attenders. Its a tiny, tiny market. Whether we're looking to sell tickets, convince a sponsor, or raise donations the numbers are not stacked in our favour.  There needs to be a lot of very creative thinking to make the numbers work. Perhaps that's the real challenge.

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.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Front End or Back End? Where's the Real Action

How do we produce the vast majority of shows in Ireland. If we're honest a small number of highly motivated people multitask for far less time than the project needs, pay themselves a pittance and by some miracle a show opens on time, runs for a very short period to an average of about 55% capacity in an auditorium that couldn't make back the cost of production even if they sold out.

For most shows that's it. Some shows develop legs, they do the festival circuit for a bit, grow tired and fade away. But in terms of the overall industry these shows leave no legacy. All that work, that funding is gone. Get drunk and plan the next one.

Take a moment and think what would happen if every other industry used the same approach. It would be like a developer building a whole load of houses and then not bothering to sell them, just walking away and leaving them empty....

Just a second, am I suggesting that the economic meltdown happened because the  construction industry borrowed their business model from the arts!? There are similarities: the developers started to believe that all the money was at the front end, at the point of construction, and so they kept building and borrowing and destroyed their own market. In a sense the theatre sector has been doing the same thing and making the same mistake. (The film industry displays the same symptoms by the way). The theatre industry for years has focused on the front end, the point of production, believing that this was where the money was. Very few people knew, or believed, or understood that money could be made at the back end, at the point of sale (and we're not just talking about tickets here; Back end includes royalties and sell on values, territory options, film rights etc. David Pugh, one of the West Ends leading producers has pointed out that with many projects the real return is not in the theatre run but in the the other property rights acquired). 

So, both theatre and construction share an unsustainable business model (believing that money is made at the point of production and not the point of sale) and they both deal in property. Chunks of land on the one hand, bundles of intellectual and artistic property (scripts, productions, performances) on the other.

In the same way that the flow of money into construction dried up, the money available for production is drying up. State funding will be cut even more, we don't have any tax incentives in place to attract investment in theatre from those able to invest, and the big shiny sponsor on the big white horse is not going to come over the hill because the sector is too fragmented and too uncoordinated (these are the words of several senior brand managers and one international sponsorship broker). Oh, and the audience have less disposable income and for many of them, theatre is just not value for money.  In the face of all this can we turn a profit, reinvest some of that profit  and make the theatre industry sustainable?

There are a couple of things that can be done. Sell more tickets (subject of a later blog); expand the audience size for any given event (subject of a later blog) but I believe that even before that we need a fundamental rethink. Producers and production companies really need to consider how the properties they invest in can best be exploited, and they need to invest in exploitable properties. They and the state funding agencies need to rethink and move away from the "grant aid" mentality and start thinking about this relationship as an investor relationship. Yes, funding for the arts carries all kinds of secondary socio-economic benefits and there are all manner of multiplier effects which are great, but lets - for the sake of argument - keep it simple.

In the classic funded situation. A project receives an amount of money from the Arts Council which is invariably less than the cost of the project. A deal is done with a venue whereby either the venue, (funded by the Arts Council and Local Authority), "invests in" or does a box office split with the project. Any remaining shortfall in the production must be "met" by the producer/production company either from their own resources or from their "share" of the box office. The main sources of money are the Council, the Venues (using Council money), the box office and the production company (funded by the Coucil). The problem here is clear - the risk is too high, the return too low. (The audiences too small in many cases to justify the cost of the production, but that's a different days work)

The Arts Council is clearly the principle investor but at this time it it receives funds from central government which it disburses to selected artists. Money comes into the Arts Council, money goes out of the Arts Council, money is gone and no obvious wealth is created.

What if the council - as  the primary investor in the sector -  looked for a return on that investment. To use one very simple example and one very simple model lets take a theatre production in Project Upstairs. The event is budgeted at €80,000 and the potential take is €100,000. The Council should underwrite the total cost of the production, (ensuring that an effective marketing plan is in place and correctly budgeted).

The Council should then take back all of the first 50% of the potential  box office (€50,000), 50% of the box office from there to the 75% point (€12,500) and 25% of the balance (€6250). The council has recovered €68,750 of its grant (86%!), the producer has earned a profit of €31,250 (which can be used for further productions or development work) and no unacceptable risk has occurred.

If you applied this to every project funded by the Council,  then when a show has the potential to "go commercial" the council, as well as all the other artists involved including actors, get to share in that success.

It's possible that if you apply this model of investment in property to all the other arts supported by The Arts Council, then in a very short space of time the arts sector would become a net benefactor of the state as opposed to a net beneficiary. Impossible? Bear in mind that approximately 70% of all funding goes right back to the state in various taxes already so we only have to earn enough to bridge that 30%.

Look at it this way, if we put away the medieval  model of patronage and disbursement that characterises state funding models, and if we charged the funders to invest public money, taxpayers money, in such a way that wealth is created, allowing the successful artists to repay the public investment in their work over time then the Arts Council can make a simple, direct and honest case that it is a profit and not a cost centre in terms of public accounting.

A whole lot of stuff has to change for this kind of model to work.  (I was told, by an arts council officer,  that the main reason it couldn't work is that the council had no mechanism for receiving money.....I guess that's that then), but the principal change needs to occur in the  relationship between the Arts Council and its clients.

The council should not concern itself with the nature or the quality of the art or the artists it supports. The artists and the public will work that out. The council needs to begin the process of investing in a robust and sustainable infrastructure that has the capacity to provide opportunities for all artists. A sort of Cultural IDA.

On the other hand the artists and producers/production companies need to realise that they are in the property game, and that a property is developed in order for it to be sold on; and that the security and freedom they seek in and for their work as artists lies at the point of sale not at the point of production.

So, if a sustainable industry is to be established as we head into a very bleak future we need to understand what business we're in, we need to realise that the real money, the stuff that allows for growth and investment occurs at the point of sale, and the model of funding and the relationship between funder and clients need to change.

Seems simple enough. Blogging is fun.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Who has to turn up for an event to be live?

I saw a play and there were no actors in the building. And you know what? It was great.

Internationally acclaimed Theatre Company Pan Pan presented their production of Samuel Beckett's ALL THAT FALL at Project Arts Centre, Dublin a couple of weeks ago. Beckett wrote the play for radio, so Pan Pan decided that rather than stage the play they would very simply record it (with a great cast) and play it back in a theatre. There was no stage, but there was a design that occupied the whole space. I went in, chose my rocking chair with black cushion adorned with white skull, sat back and listened to Beckett's radio play in the company of a packed house all sitting and rocking. Not an actor to be seen.

Pan Pan's production of All That Fall begs a really interesting question: who has to be present for live theatre to be live?

For years one of the key arguments for the continued significance of theatre was the very fact of its "liveness", of being in the presence of real people acting out a story in real time in the same space as you. Pan Pan's production has dealt that argument a devastating blow. The audience loved the production, making it a 98% sell out hit. Nobody minded that there were no actors actually present, nobody minded that the performance they were hearing was identical to every other performance in the course of the run, and nobody minded that there was nobody to applaud at the end. In fact nobody minded that the show lacked some of the key characteristics in the traditional argument for why live theatre is uniquely different from cinema.

It would seem that all that is required for Live Theatre to occur is for a bunch of people (the audience) to gather in the same place to witness a story: the medium of retelling (is the teller present or not) is irrelevant.

It would have been very possible for Pan Pan's production to have occurred in any number of venues simultaneously, greatly increasing the audience and significantly reducing the costs of touring.

A couple of months ago I attended a production of The Royal National Theatre's Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle. Except I wasn't in London - I was in Dublin, in a cinema. Frankenstein was part of the NT Live programme. The live theatre event was beautifully captured for the screen by multi camera director Tim Van Someren. Again, the absence of actors did not affect the quality of the experience. I saw an excellent piece of theatre - on a big screen.

Here in Ireland theatre has been bedeviled by a massive overdependence on inadequate state funding: unwilling to invest during the boom times and unable to invest now (but that's another story). Quite simply the cost of production and subsequent touring far outweighs the potential income from sales. That no longer has to be the case. The NT Frankenstein and Pan Pan's All That Fall have proven that it is the quality of the experience and not the "liveness" of the actor that is paramount. If we accept this and then understand that the technology for opening a show in many different venues simultaneously now exists (and is becoming cheaper all the time), allowing theatre to access a global maket, and continue to generate revenue long after the live show has ended, we realise that the economics of theatre production is undergoing a fundamental shift.

(Cinema folk refer to this screening of live theatre, opera, ballet etc as "Alternative Content". That's a little bit cheeky, when you consider that theatre, ballet etc has been playing to audiences in specially built venues for a lot longer than cinema has).

So what makes Live Theatre Live? It would seem that the audience does. But this in itself raises all manner of interesting questions.

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.