Saturday, 19 October 2013

Is Government Funding Killing the Arts?

This evening I attended the final of Woking's Annual Drama Festival. Over the last two weeks, amateur drama groups from as far afield as Bristol and Essex have competed to win one or more of 16 awards. The festival is apparently quite well known and highly regarded.

So I was surprised to find that on each of the three nights of the festival that I attended, the theatre (a modest 260 seater) wasn't even close to full. Even on the last night, tonight, when three of the best plays were recalled to be shown again, the theatre was only around half full.


The only reason I knew about the festival was that I am a member of a group who took part, but sadly weren't nominated for any of the awards. Otherwise I wouldn't have known about it. I have never heard of it before despite being a reasonably regular and local (30 years plus) theatre goer - surely indicating a major communication failure.

Following tonight's three performances, the adjudicator gave his assessment of the quality of performances he had seen throughout the two weeks of the festival.

'Was this year a vintage year for Woking Drama Festival?', he asked.

'Not Really', he said, 'Some of the groups didn't really bother to try very hard.'

It was a fairly damning indictment from someone who clearly knows his stuff.

He went on to implore the drama groups who attended the final night (not all bothered) to make use of the unusually high standard of facilities available at the theatre which has recently been gifted £300,000 by the local council for improvements.

And that £300k really got me thinking. The typical theatre goer is relatively wealthy. Why on earth should £300,000 pounds of local taxpayers money be lavished on a tiny, wealthy majority? And why is it?

An email I received earlier this week perhaps helps answer that question. It was imploring me, as someone who had bought a ticket for a previous festival night, to attend last Tuesday's festival night as the mayor was attending and given the £300k the council had spent they wanted to create the false impression that the festival was well attended and deceive the mayor into thinking that local taxpayers money had been wisely spent...

Isn't this madness?

What usually happens when you give people money for nothing? Are they incentivised to work hard and be creative?

Theatre is a unique and brilliant art form. But is government funding helping or ultimately hindering?

Does it help drive innovation and creativity when government hands out money to the arts?

Some would argue that without government money, the arts would die. But isn't it true that with government money the most creative people spend their time and energy competing for grants rather than working out how to attract audiences? - Isn't it therefore a downward spiral?

I suspect that the organisations at the top of the tree, who manage to garner national government funding and who should be telling the big story about the unique and compelling attractions of theatre are not doing as much of it as they would be, if they weren't being gifted taxpayers cash.

The UK's big-name football clubs are not subsidised yet they manage to inspire millions of people to play football at clubs around the country and further millions of others around the world. You will not find a city in the world without hundreds of Manchester United supporters..

So is government funding actually killing the arts by removing incentives and rewarding mediocrity which in turn creates a less compelling product for audiences?

If all direct and in-direct funding were suddenly withdrawn certainly some theatres would fail - the ones that produce a poorer quality product. But those that were left would succeed and perhaps out of the improved average quality, the result would be that more people would view theatre as something desirable to be involved with either as a member of an audience or as a participant.

And perhaps the major theatres and theatre production companies would do what major football clubs in this country have done and invest in creating sustainable mass audiences by effectively marketing the appeals of their product rather than making grant submissions. Not simply selling each production, but the very idea and appeal of going to the theatre.

And in turn perhaps thousands of people who attended and enjoyed this exciting well marketed medium of theatre would be tempted to join small drama and theatre groups and compete against each other in increasingly well attended, high quality festivals and competitions... thus driving standards and participation ever higher..

Does it seem like the perhaps counter-intuitive answer to the original question is yes?


Michael Starr said...

I agree with all of the above, not so much the football comparison, but certainly the points picked up on funding. I've always said that removing funding from groups (not venues) is the way forward as it forces the groups to focus on development. The better, more effective groups will survive and grow, the not so good ones will stop.

Chris said...

Groups get funding? do they? Who? I don't know of any local AmDram groups who do. Woking Drama Association (producers and organisers of the Festival) certainly don't; the very few people who run it are all voluntary, unpaid and often out-of-pocket people, and if any one of them leaves getting a replacement volunteer is virtually impossible (hence lack of publicity). No super rich people making a fortune by deceiving the council here. I'm really not clear as to which organisation you're having a go at and if I've got it wrong, I apologise. But I've been left feeling vaguely insulted.

Robin Horsley said...

Michael / Chris - Thanks for taking the trouble to comment - appreciated.

Michael - I guess if funding were suddenly withdrawn from venues it could kill of the arts but I am not convinced it's a good thing in the long term. Any form of subsidy will ultimately disincentivise striving for excellence and frankly it just seems unfair and undemocratic to spend quite large sums for the benefit of a small section of the tax paying public. Interested in your thoughts on this.

Robin Horsley said...

Chris, You are putting up a straw-man argument or suffering from an imagined slight. Nowhere do I suggest that local AmDram groups get direct government funding. I simply didn't say that and it is clearly not true. Nor do I mention super-rich people making a fortune by deceiving the council - again the work of your imagination.

There was an attempt to deceive the council though..perhaps the source of your upset. Did I hit a nerve? Frankly I don't suggest this is a huge crime in itself! - but it is an action that clearly illustrated the perverse outcomes that govt funding sometimes generates!

Unless we have been misinformed, Woking Borough Council have spent £300k of taxpayers cash on a venue which as Mike Tilbury observed was hugely under-utilised throughout the festival - in terms of sizes of audience.

The argument I have constructed here is about the perverse incentives that government (national or local) funding creates, and questions if the outcome is actually the desirable one.

It's not a criticism of the efforts of volunteers or people who chose to spend some of their spare time enjoying themselves doing drama or other creative pursuits - far from it. I am one of them.

I should point out that the usual audience for this blog tends to be people interested in national and local politics. So, not knowing this, you may have assumed I was just using my personal blog as a platform to have an indiscriminate whack at some hard-working volunteers. In fact I was using the experience of attending 3 nights of the festival to explore a national political issue and how policy can eventually flow to and impact on the grass-roots as I think it does.

I see from your blog that you are involved in the organisation of WDF. Congratulations on your efforts I really, hugely enjoyed it and gained a lot from it. If you need a volunteer to focus on doing marketing and pr for the event next year let me know - happy to help if I have some time free.

Tony Earnshaw said...

You seem to be confusing best with most popular. If there were no subsidy for the arts in general, the end result would be a dumbing down as the survivors would be those who could put bums on seats by staging endless reruns of easy stuff and/ or casts including TV stars. The experimental, the courageous, the new, the unknown would all suffer and we would lose the foundations for future quality. We already see some of that in the professional theatre, and in literature and elsewhere. We need to stop rather than feed the rot. There may be better ways to fund the arts but cutting off the supply would be hugely counterproductive.

On the question of a few rich people being the beneficiaries in Woking the people who benefit from the drama festival are drawn from a cross section of ages and life styles, many of them not rich by any measure. And there a lot of people involved - cast, crew, directors, writers. Not just those in the audience. Attendances were disappointing but many of those people are involved in multiple arts activities which prevent them attending every night. The cast, crew and director of the okay I was involved with are also involved in two other productions as well as singing a choral society and other activities. I suspect the same is true of other groups.

Robin Horsley said...

Tony - 'Best with Popular' - No confusion on my part. I think your idea about that perhaps reveals a confusion in your mind that something unpopular should still be considered 'quality' despite the fact it is not valued.. makes no sense. I think you are confusing unpopular with best.

'If there were no subsidy there would be endless re-runs of easy stuff and or casts including TV stars' - I don't share your disdain for TV stars - obviously if they can't do the job then they would be short lived (so no problem) and I can't see why re-runs would be popular? You don't advance any evidence for this.

Government funding is the issue I am talking about here. I think innovation is what is required here not just more demands every year for more and more government subsidy for a small section of the population (whatever you the demographics are.)

In almost every realm of life the consumer votes with their cash. Why should the arts be any different? If you can produce something of value to people they will pay for it. If you can't they will not. If you can't why should the government take cash from people who are not interested in your activity and give it to you for producing something of insufficient value?? Madness.

I think the arts needs more innovative funding models not better begging skills from Government. Government funding stands in the way of this. It's not seed capital demanding a return thus requiring scrutiny and pressure on the recipient to produce something of value - as your message makes's a gift to the insufficiently talented which has the unfortunate effect of discrediting the medium.

In the case of Theatre, the medium has probably not adapted to changing circumstance or competitive mediums. Things like Helen Mirren's live broadcast to cinemas of her 'The Audience' performance perhaps point one way forward. I suspect audience activity and participation is another area for scope.

Thanks for helping illuminate this further. A crucial difference here is between investment (with the expectation of a return) and Government 'funding' - a gift.

I suspect the adjudicator at WDF knows his stuff and is fully aware that people do other things some nights.

stewie1157 said...

Robin – As the Chairman of Woking Drama Festival I want to respond to some of your points on the Drama Festival and Woking Council’s support of the Rhoda McGaw Theater. I will not comment on the wider questions about direct grant funding for the arts.
I was surprised to read that you did not know about the Woking Drama Festival despite being a regular theatre goer over the last 30 years. Our publicity may not be the strongest, we rely on the support and help of the 20 member groups of the Woking Drama Association and those entering to promote the Drama Festival and to sell tickets to their members. To support them we provide handbills, posters, we make use of the Borough Council’s community notice boards and we run promotions on local radio (BBC, Eagle and Radio Wey). We also use editorial in the local papers. Of course we could do more and maybe we can call on you next year as publicity secretary as you suggest.
If groups do not push and promote members to attend the Festival we have no contact with the individual. If the individual chooses to attend only the night of their group’s performance then that is something we cannot control other than to make the experience one they want to return to. We know that we compete for the “entertainment pound” and the consumer has huge choice and we acknowledge there are third party costs to give a true cost to the evening. We run an aggressive pricing policy and offer discounts on tickets for multiple nights through our Festival Season Ticket offer. Again this is promoted to groups.
The Woking Drama Festival is one of the largest in the Country. The quality is very high compared to other festivals and the winner from Woking has gone on to win the British All Winners Festival. We are one of the stronger festivals and sadly a number are either closing down or have ended. A drama festival can and should be a learning ground for producers and actors. The setting and technical rules are there to test just as to educate. To watch how other groups address these can be informative and should inspire new thinking for the future. The time commitment to get it right is demanding sadly, our adjudicator was correct, in some plays not enough thought was given or the time taken to rehearse insufficient. But (and I hate to say this) maybe the time of Drama Festivals is coming to an end.
Let me address your comment about the Mayor’s visit. The sales for that night were appalling. We had one of the bigger groups in the area performing plus a youth group from out of the area that we knew could probably not bring an audience. Nobody likes to play or sit in an empty house and yes ,I did want to create the right impression– nothing in wrong in that; after all the Festival has been part of Woking for 55 years.

Finally, the refurbishment; this was not a direct payment to the WDA but a wider commitment Woking Council has to support the community performing arts. The Rhoda McGaw opened in the early 1970’s and has not had any substantial money spent on it since. It is a Council facility operated by Ambassadors Theater Group. It is for use by the community and the Drama Festival is one of over +40 different bookings each year from local amateur theatre, dance and theatre schools plus two leading dance festivals. It is a vibrant, well used space but it needed TLC. What has been done is update the services and facilities to allow the theater to continue to serve the community for another 40 years.
Without the investment the theater could have ceased to function, a loss to the kids that touch and experience the magic of theater for the first time, to the local theater companies that get to play on a professional stage. No one gets a subsidy, arts grant or similar. They fund raise in other ways to cover any losses they may make. Is this misappropriating tax payer’s money for an elite or privileged few? Theater caters for all to educate and entertain.

Robin Horsley said...

Stew, Thanks taking the time to respond to my blog post. It seems to have provoked some more widespread interest here and on FB and twitter - more than I could have expected.

I really enjoyed the festival and very much hope it does continue successfully.

Civic amenities are important but I think they do need to demonstrate consistent widespread use by the local taxpayer community to be justifiable - if taxpayers money is to be used to provide them.

But really that is not the central thrust of my blog post - it's really questioning if in fact government funding is ultimately productive or counter-productive.

I personally would be very happy to see targeted funding for kids without the resources to get involved in Theatre where necessary. Fortunately there are thousands of people who enjoy spending their spare time making this opportunity available for little or no cost.

Sadly I can't agree entirely with your final sentence. Theatre doesn't actually cater for all to educate and entertain (obviously I can't give you a detailed demographic breakdown!) but it's great that it exists for those who chose to take advantage of it.

The question that remains is if others who are not interested should be compelled to pay for it - by their taxes being used to fund it and if the outcomes from government funding actually have a long-term positive impact on the success of the medium.

There is an interesting piece here on the subject:

Thanks again Stew.

Tony Earnshaw said...

Hi Robin

No confusion in my mind. The point I was making was not that ‘Popular is bad’ but that it is no more valid to assume that ‘Popular is good’. However, cutting through the peripherals, there are two key issues here. One is that measuring everything in terms of economic return is dangerous and inappropriate especially if this is measured in the short term– a much wider issue than arts funding, but covering research and experimentation too. The second is that the arts as a whole do give a return and that while you could point to specific sectors or shows which are commercial successes that success is built on the wider arts base and in many cases on years in which there was no clear return. Cutting away the base endangers future successes.

Now, the issue you are focused on is whether the financial support for this should come from government and the argument against government subsidy only partly goes away if you accept the above. I would argue that a civilized society needs theatre and the arts and even if the measure is simply an economic one, the subsidies are valid because the return, in both hard and soft terms, is worthwhile. The remaining issue is whether the subsidies and grants themselves have a detrimental rather than a positive effect. I suspect the answer is a mixture and made more so by the many headed nature of both government and the arts. I don’t accept however that the availability of government money stifles the arts and turns us all into touts with begging bowls. There is a wealth of non funded activity so government funding is only part of the picture, if an important one. Find a different way of doing it by all means, that might be constructive but cutting the supply to see what happens would be foolhardy

Robin Horsley said...


Interesting thoughts. Who do you think should decide when popular is not good?

I think not measuring things in terms of long term economic return is inappropriate and is potentially more dangerous. If you produce output for a leisure activity which a sufficient number of people don't want to participate in (unpopular) then surely it's not right to compel those who aren't interested to pay for it? And more so, it is dangerous surely if it sustains something that otherwise should decline or re-invent itself to cater to changed needs.

Of course short term investment in many activities is necessary. And patrons of the arts should be able to put their money into anything they wish to. But public money is the issue. Research and development in the certain knowledge that some elements will not succeed is part of any investment risk. But to simply pour money, essentially as gifts, for supposedly worthy exploits without a measurable, or accountable return is folly is it not?

Investments need to be made with the expectation that some will fail and some will succeed with a model that ensures that the failures are paid for by the successes.

Gifts from Government don't fulfil this though.

I would argue that a civilised society benefits from the arts also. But the question is if it prospers in the long term from it or if it is counter-productive for the reasons outlined above.

I would favour a decline in government funding for the arts in a timely manner to enable time for reinvention and re-invigoration - a gradual taking away of the support to enable the transition whilst possibly maintaining some support for the disadvantaged but not for those who want to hide from the realities of life by avoiding the need to provide a return on investment.

You can't just throw up your hands in the air and decide it's too difficult to determine return on investment - not when you are spending other people's money in the sure and certain knowledge that it will not benefit all the bill payers. It seems wholly wrong to think that you or I should decide that the arts is good for society so we will compel them all to pay for it - like it or not..

If you or I want to invest our time or money or just spend it then why not. Just don't force others down that road - it's a mild form of tyranny dressed up in a pantomime dame's dress!

Produce something good, something popular enough for your audience to pay for the cost of and put away your begging bowl and your 'but it's good for society' mysticism and all will be well!

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