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The Green Room: What’s your response to the Arts Council prioritising relevance over excellence?

Simon Mellor deputy chief executive for arts and culture. Photo: Philippa Gedge Simon Mellor deputy chief executive for arts and culture. Photo: Philippa Gedge

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​

Gary Abblett is a 38-year-old jobbing actor with experience at the National, RSC, in the West End and on the road

Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in film, BAFTA-winning TV, at the RSC, National and West End

Albert_Parker

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked in regional theatres and is a writer and street performer

 

Peter Define relevance. Is it today’s political issues or universal human truths?

AlbertIs the Arts Council still relevant?

Gary My feeling is that excellence, although subjective, is a notion that we can all vaguely agree is worth aspiring to. Relevance – oh, dear. Custard.

JonIn some ways, this is a question of a sound bite overriding everything else – the body of the statement was sensible stuff such as increasing access, encouraging diversity, and so on, but the headline-grabber was the relevance versus excellence thing.

Annie I think the headline is misleading.

Adam I feel like it paints a fantasy picture where worthy Legz Akimbo-style stuff gets promoted over good, old-fashioned Shakespeare in doublet and hose… and that wasn’t really what was being said.

Gary So are they prioritising relevance over excellence or not?

JonThis is the quote in question from Simon Mellor: “Relevance is becoming the new litmus test. It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways they value”.

Adam To be fair, that’s always been the case. The Arts Council has made sure that companies such as Gay Sweatshop, Tara Arts and Talawa were supported as much for their mission as for the quality of their work.

Albert Perhaps something that is truly excellent is always relevant, and that is part
of the excellence.

Adam You could argue that defining by excellence is in itself a tyranny. We should all be allowed to try bold things and fail.

JonOne thing to bear in mind is that although he’s prioritising relevance, he’s not downplaying excellence – he’s saying that excellence alone is not enough.

Gary Excellence alone is definitely enough.

Adam There’s got to be space for both. Obviously no one wants to see a killer production of a classic play criticised for not being relevant. But I agree with Albert – the joy of art is that excellence has relevance baked in.

Annie It is important to fund the abstract and lesser-known companies and projects and offer them guidance… It’s a balancing act and there is a place for it all. And a council estate community in Essex is going to want and need different theatre and funding in comparison to Kensington.

Albert Yes but the council estate should get excellence. Not just be funded because of its location.

Annie Absolutely – I’m saying that if you “need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value”, their values will be different. The work will need to be relevant to that community, which only the company will be able to measure, not the people throwing the money around.

‘Perhaps something that is truly excellent is always relevant’

Peter I saw an audience in a Lancashire mill town roaring with laughter at Waiting for Godot. I’m not sure that ACE would have classed it as relevant.

Gary Excellence is what will inspire council estates and country estates alike.

JonExcellence can be a get out of jail free card though. ‘Yes, our cast is entirely made up of middle-class white men in their 40s, but you see we were aiming for excellence.’

Peter Accessibility is a very different issue.

JonNobody is going to say: “We were shooting for mediocrity.”

Adam I don’t want to be a pedant, like a sixth-former always questioning the assumption of the essay question, but this does set up an entirely false binary that is designed to tickle everyone’s prejudices. It’s not either/or.

Annie I agree.

Adam The way the question is set up by the Arts Council implies they are two separate concepts, and we should push back on that. The very best art feels blindingly relevant because it’s universal.

JonBut it’s more complex than that. By saying “you need to be relevant and excellent”,
Mellor is prioritising relevance, because the non-relevant excellent project won’t be funded.

Gary The very notion of relevance is exclusive – it presumes that relevance is something we’ve all agreed on. We haven’t.

Annie If it’s excellent, it will also have relevance. Again, who is the determiner for these ideals? What’s relevant to me is not necessarily relevant to my mum.

Adam And what is the non-relevant excellent project anyway? How does it exist beyond an application form exercise? Does anyone who actually makes theatre ever make these choices?

Albert Ultimately it’s just the Arts Council lining up their guns so that they can turn funding down

Adam We all do theatre because we feel it’s relevant – no one sets out to make irrelevant work. “I’m making a piece that is going to be excellent but irrelevant and I deserve money” – said no one ever.

Peter They don’t make the choice to eschew excellence but they do make the choice to pursue relevance.

Adam “I believe in my right to irrelevance.”

JonIt’s every audition for a not-new play, isn’t it? ‘What do you think of the play?’ ‘Well, it’s got so much to say about now, hasn’t it?

Adam I wonder if this is nothing more than just learning how to write a couple of paragraphs differently in an application form.

Annie It’s definitely a case of jumping through their hoops

Albert So pieces that make people’s souls lighter and fill them with laughter and joy, and help them cope with their daily lives a little better will probably all be classed as irrelevant.

Peter I knew a director running a very good company on a shoestring without Arts Council funding. He said that if he got funding he would have to employ an extra person just to deal with the Arts Council.


Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email greenroom@thestage.co.uk

Arts Council: Relevance not excellence will be new litmus test for funding

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