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“here are 8 pragmatic ideas for how we change the relationship between artists and venues”

BLOG – this is a contribution to the #IllShowYouMine debate about how we change venues for the better

– our galaxy

– planet earth

– Europe

– the UK

– culture

– people who work in the arts

– the relationship between artists and venues

In our galaxy a debate about the relationship between artists and venues has heated up. There’s been a lot of good sense written by people like Bryony KimmingsAndy FieldAmelia Bird, Susan Jones, Maddy Costa and others. I think it’s important for more people from venues to contribute to the conversation. This is a (too) long contribution to the debate, demonstrating that I have had nowhere to go this Saturday evening.

Over the last few days I have been having a twitter conversation with Pippa Bailey on the topic. I agree with Pippa’s basic premise that the current system isn’t working. I think the relationship between artists and venues needs to change, as part of a wider change in arts and culture, as part of a wider revolution in the way we use and share resources globally. If we don’t sort out the latter then we’re all screwed! But first (we can sort out the global crisis next) here are 8 pragmatic ideas for how we change the relationship between artists and venues.

1. Greater transparency

I think everyone in the #Illshowyoumine debate has said this, and I agree. Transparency should be the norm not the exception. In May this year I had a first go at writing down the way we work with artists when it comes to money. I’ve kept the document updated on our site. We talked about money in our last artist brainstorm meeting; we’ve recently talked about trying to change our basic financial model; and next we are going to run a half day workshop or two with artists (paying for their time) to look at ways to do things better. We have a long way to go before we make our whole operation transparent.

Artists & venues should talk about money as part of their 1st conversation in terms of how the money does or doesn’t work. We all have to keep getting better at this. It will be brilliant for venues to see Bryony Kimmings breakdown of expenditure and income: it’s a wake-up call.

2. Boards and governance

Most venues have Boards. Boards help set the culture around money. Some artists also have companies with Boards. Let’s have more artists on Boards of venues. And more people who work in venues on the Boards of artist led companies. There’s a money thing to talk about here, in terms of whether people can afford to give their time. At the moment, we only have one artist on our Board and I need to think about how we have more with our Chair; maybe we need an artist’s advisory group. I know that most independent artists don’t have formal Boards but there’s nothing to stop artists asking for more conversations with people who work in venues. Basically, I think a load more of this kind of stuff will help with transparency. It will also help independent artists get closer to wider policy making processes, a point well made by Emily Coleman. Another way to do this is to get stuck in to a What Next? meeting or to create your own group.

3. Arts Council support

I don’t think, as some have suggested, that a percentage split of a venue’s NPO grant should be guaranteed as fees or salaries for artists. Not because I don’t think it’s a brilliant principle. But because I think it would prove unworkable across all the NPOs that ACE works with. However, there is something ACE could do.

ACE does place policy demands on its NPOs such as diversity action plans and resilience strategies. I think these demands could and should go further with a mixture of agreed ambitions and targets. ACE could apply the same methodology to how much money goes to artists. Different venues would have different targets at different stages of their evolution. It’s important to remember that ACE has limited administrative resources so this couldn’t become too burdensome. But the Relationship Managers I have met are extremely good and it could easily become part of the regular dialogue with venues, as well as forming part of the conversation when ACE Relationship Managers come to venue Board meetings, as they now do. The same would be true for artist led NPOs who employ artists.

And while we’re at it, can we have a more bold reorganisation of the portfolio of NPOs so that more investment is going in to grassroots, artist-led organisations. And let’s get used to organisations coming in and out of the portfolio, more fluidly, as appropriate to a specific context.

4. Invest in making shows

Like Amelia Bird, I think we’re spending too much resource on artist development schemes. We learn more effectively when we do stuff. We closed our “supported artist” programme a few years ago because we felt it had run its course. However, before we have a bonfire of everyone’s artist development schemes, it’s worth remembering why a lot of these schemes began. I remember being an independent artist & producer (from 92-98 & 01-04) when the opportunities for making and presenting experimental work were few and far between. It’s definitely time to cut back on programmes that duplicate, or worse still that box in or disempower artists. But let’s be careful to spot where some schemes might still be needed.

At Battersea Arts Centre we are now working with Contact Theatre and PPP on The Agency. I spent this afternoon sitting in the freezing Providence House on Winstanley Estate listening to brilliant and inspiring ideas for social enterprises by young people who have followed a methodology by Brazilian theatre director Marcus Faustini. I’d argue that venues need to run more of these kinds of development programmes not less: better connecting with local people and using creativity as a way to tackle challenges in our local communities. We’re also focussing on supporting producers/promoters in towns around the UK to help them grow what they are doing. Or artist-teacher exchange programmes. Theatre critics sometimes remind me that there are less runs of shows at Battersea Arts Centre now, compared with ten years ago. That’s because we have consciously tried to do less shows better, whilst broadening the range of activities we undertake as a theatre. Perhaps there’s room for discussion in this debate about what venues are for?

5. Rethink power

Some of the stuff I have read over the last few days talks about the vast resources of venues who hold all the power. Any venue who works with Daniel Kitson, including the National Theatre, doesn’t end up looking powerful. Daniel Kitson tends to set his own ticket prices, generally negotiates the way he wants things to work and manages the relationship with his audience. I’m not for a moment suggesting that every artist has the capacity to do things like Daniel Kitson. But he has carved out his own way of doing things. I think if we think venues are all powerful and artists are victims, we’re on dodgy ground. One way of changing things is to rethink power, and I would encourage artists to recognise that they are the powerful ones because they make stuff. Shane Solanki eloquently said that “the models of crapitalism have never favoured the dudes who are actually making the shit.” But there are ways to make the makers powerful, and I’d say that Daniel Kitson has found a pretty good way for himself.

6. Data

One major imbalance between venues and artists that needs to be addressed is data. At the moment, venues tend to retain the data of the audiences who come to see shows. They do not always share this with the artists who often attract the audiences in the first place. This is important in terms of artists being able to crowd fund future projects or simply build up a strong database of connections nationally. I think ACE could help here. I think there’s a group of people trying to fix this out there – but I am not sure who’s leading on it?

7. How can mega-arts-organisations help?

I think we are beginning to see the rise (mostly in London) of mega-art-stores. Whilst plenty of us shop in supermarkets and mega-stores, it’s undeniable the damage they have done to our high streets and independent traders. As mega-arts-organisations take hold there is a danger that a similar thing will happen to independent venues and artists. Fast forward five years, mega-arts-organisations will continue to live-stream more and more live theatre in to more towns. More people will go to see it. Because it’s good and people will like it. This may well have a negative impact on local artists and live work. Why take a risk on a new piece of live work for £15 by an artist you haven’t of, when you can go and watch War Horse for £8 up the road? I don’t suggest that we try and stop the growth of mega-arts-organisations. I believe that more arts will lead to more arts and that’s good for a more creative culture. But I do think we should work with the mega-arts-organisations to see how they can support the wider ecology. [As King Ken Robinson warns us, traditional industrial structures are anti-creative.]

Of course this point doesn’t only relate to mega-arts-organisations. We are all part of the ecology. At Battersea Arts Centre we have been thinking what we can do to work more effectively with venue partners locally who do not have the same kind of funding that we have access to.

8. Let’s fight together, not each other

If we pan out from artists & venues, and look more broadly at the arts, we can see other struggles brewing. There is a debate raging about the imbalance of ACE funds invested in London vs the regions. I think there is a struggle emerging about digital provision by mega-arts-organisations vs local live work. And of course there is artists vs venues, as it has been described. There’s plenty to get incensed about. If we pan out again, we can see UK culture being squeezed of investment by local and national government. In a climate of reducing resource, we have a choice: to fight each other, or work harder together to fight for greater investment. I think we have to opt for the latter. By saying this, I am not suggesting for a nano-second that we shouldn’t put our own house in order and make big changes happen: points 1 to 7 would be my starting places in terms of artists & venues. But we should work together to achieve this change. If we don’t, there may be two consequences. When the public turns to look at us (our audiences, politicians, teachers etc.) they will find us squabbing and we won’t look worthy of further public investment. The second is that we will simply damage relationships with each other. In this debate about artists and venues there have been a few accusations starting to fly around. It’s also happened in some of the other debates with criticisms of the arts council particularly. When there’s less resource, it happens. I would make a plea for collaboration and kindness as we go through change. Rather than hector each other, or the Arts Council, let’s talk with each other, and make change.

1 Dec 2013

Categories: Culture FUNDING Developing creative ORGANISATIONS

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