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Communication breakdown

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Culture suffered at the Comprehensive Spending Review because the public doesn’t understand arts funding. Audiences need to be made aware that their contribution is essential, says Alistair Smith

There are various ways of measuring the cuts that the arts suffered at last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

You can call it 30% or 15%, but however you look it at it, the fact remains that this has been a tough settlement for the arts, and the performing arts in particular. When you looked down the lists of winners and losers in newspapers’ post-CSR coverage, culture invariable found itself in the losers column. To me, this begs the question of why. Why, at a time when the arts – and the performing arts in particular – are flourishing across the UK, should they be dealt such a heavy blow?

Many will be tempted to blame culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. There is a feeling among some in the arts that he is a career politician with little love for the sector, despite being a very able operator. I’m not sure this is entirely fair. I’m happy to believe both his and culture minister Ed Vaizey’s assertions that they ‘get’ the arguments for funding the arts. They probably do. The problem is they weren’t (and still aren’t) the people we really needed to convince. The people the arts world needs to convince is the Treasury, and, even more importantly, the public.

The twin problems the sector faces when arguing for sustained investment at a time of tight public finances are that the Treasury doesn’t believe our economic arguments and members of the public don’t care – at least, not in the way that they care about schools and hospitals.

Martin Smith, writing in this space last week, explained eloquently why we need to improve the quality of our studies into cultural economics if we are going to win the argument with the Treasury. So I won’t go into depth on that subject. All I would say is that he is by no means alone in believing things need to be improved – the numerous ‘economic impact’ studies which are currently being churned out are advocacy masquerading as research and the Treasury sees through them. Instead, I’d like to focus on the general public.

Audiences have been noticeable by their absence in the arts campaigns leading up to the CSR. When hospitals are cut, it is not the doctors and nurses who raise their voices the loudest, but the patients. When theatres face cuts, it is always those working in the industry who lead the charge, resulting in a campaign which can often be perceived (rightly or wrongly) as self-interested.

The unpalatable truth is that the general public still doesn’t understand arts funding.

Talking to people outside the industry, one very often finds they have no concept of the difference between the National Theatre and the West End, or the Young Vic and the Menier Chocolate Factory or Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. And if they don’t understand that, they haven’t got a hope of understanding how a show such as War Horse – now playing in a commercial venue – wouldn’t have been possible without its public subsidy, without their investment through tax.

Many assume that our theatres run on ticket income alone. And why shouldn’t they? We – and I include the media in this – have not done a good enough job of explaining to them how the system works, where their money fits into it and just how much of a vital piece to the jigsaw it is.

Unlike in museums and galleries, where free entry is a clear signifier of the fact that the institutions are receiving public money, it can often be very confusing for theatregoers to decipher when they are visiting subsidised and non-subsidised venues. In turn, this means that it’s a lot harder for them to conceive of the impact that cuts to government funding for the performing arts might have on the theatres which they visit and the productions they watch.

I think it was notable that galleries and museums came out of the recent settlement better than the performing arts with a straightforward 15% cut, compared to ACE’s 30%. I’d argue that this is a direct result of free entry, the potential threat of its withdrawal and the feared ensuing uproar from the general public.

We need to do a much better job of communicating to audiences the fact that public funding for the performing arts is just as important – unless they want to watch less inventive, worse produced work and pay more for the privilege.

At the moment, when visiting a subsidised venue, you’ll probably find a little Arts Council England logo in the theatre programme (if you buy it), perhaps with a line saying ‘supported by Arts Council England’ to explain to audiences that the show they are watching is publicly-funded.

The problem with this is that a) a lot of people don’t know what Arts Council England is and b) it doesn’t make clear just how much support has been given, nor the direct relationship between that support and the tax that the audience has paid.

So, this is my suggestion.

Every theatre or company which receives public money should give a short announcement – either over a tannoy, or preferably by projecting a trailer film on to the safety curtain or equivalent – before every performance. This could be combined with the now universal announcement to audiences to turn off their mobile phones. In this announcement – which needn’t last more than 30 seconds – audiences should be told that their tax has helped to fund this performance (and, if appropriate, the venue that houses it) and that the creation of that work would not have been possible without it. It might even be useful to give a precise figure as to what percentage of funding the venue receives from the public purse.

Something similar should be a requirement in the commercial sphere when work that has started in the public sector is being further exploited. I’m sure this could be written into contracts. So, for example, Enron or War Horse in the West End might have had a similar announcement explaining that it started life in subsidised theatre and would not have been possible without public funding.

Audiences need to be made aware of how vital public investment in the arts is, otherwise when we come to the next Comprehensive Spending Review, we will find ourselves facing similar sized cuts again.

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